Since Raygun Republicans have embraced the idea of building prisons and ever more draconian penalties. The problem is – conservatives are real big on action…
But not real big on thinking. It never occurred to them that prisons cost money. Like tax cuts, being tough on crime has been a conservative staple – betting that the average Faux News addicted not too bright Republican voter is way too stupid to figure out that just like in your household income … The government has expenses.
One of the results of the 2010 election is that giant, rotten Dodo bird has come home to roost, with Republicans now in charge of the majority of State Houses in the middle of many states going broke.
They now have to fix the mess they created.
When Harry Coates campaigned for the Oklahoma state Senate in 2002, he had one approach to crime: “Lock ‘em up and throw away the key.”
Now, Coates is looking for that key. He and other tough-on-crime lawmakers across the country, faced with steep budget shortfalls, are searching anxiously for ways to let inmates out of prison faster and keep more offenders on the street.
Oklahoma’s preferred answer for crime has collided head-on with a budget deficit estimated at $600 million, and prison costs that have increased more than 30 percent in the last decade. For years, lawmakers have pushed each other to lengthen prison sentences and increase the number of criminals behind bars. Not now: This week, new Republican Speaker of the House Kris Steele is expected to unveil a package of proposals that would divert thousands of nonviolent lawbreakers from the prison system and ramp up paroles.
Similar crash prison reductions are going on from coast to coast. Michigan has shuttered 20 correctional facilities and slashed spending by nearly 7 percent. South Carolina expects to reduce its inmate numbers by 8 percent by putting drug dealers, burglars and hot check writers into community programs instead of behind bars. Nationwide, the number of state inmates actually decreased last year for the first time in nearly 40 years.
“There has been a dramatic shift,” said Adam Gelb, a policy specialist with the Pew Center on the States in Washington, D.C. “The old question was simply, how do I demonstrate that I’m tough on crime?” Now, it’s “a much better question: How do I get taxpayers a better public safety return on their corrections dollars?”
Other states are trying alternatives to prison time. But in no state is the philosophical U-turn more abrupt than in Oklahoma, where last year the Legislature was barreling in the opposite direction. Lawmakers introduced 26 bills creating new felony crimes and 19 increasing penalties in 2010, even as the Department of Corrections was forcing guards and other workers to take a furlough day each month to cut costs caused by rising populations.
Oklahoma’s prison population has grown from 22,600 in 2000 to nearly 26,000 now, and the budget from $366 million to $483 million last year. Unless the Legislature provides $9 million in emergency funding this year, prison officials say guards will have to take three furlough days a month beginning in March, straining the inmate-to-guard ratios that prison officials say are already the most dangerous they’ve been in decades.
Accepting that the lock-’em-up days are finally over has been chastening for some lawmakers, especially conservatives.
“Truthfully, it’s popular to be tough on crime,” said Coates, a construction company owner from Seminole. “But when I saw what we were spending on corrections and who was going into our adult prisons and for what reasons . you figure out it’s not exactly like you thought,” he said.
Unlike previous years, Republican leaders in Oklahoma now own the problem. The midterm elections gave the Republican the governor’s office for the first time in eight years and increased majorities in both houses of the Legislature…