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PLN associate editor quoted in TN article about reducing prison population

Tennessean, Jan. 1, 2009.
PLN associate editor quoted in TN article about reducing prison population - Tennessean 2009

August 7, 2009

Tennessee to cut prison population by 3,000

As cost-saving measure, state will focus on stemming return of low-risk offenders

By Chris Echegaray

The Tennessee Department of Correction will reduce the state's prison population by 3,000 over the next two years, focusing on keeping low-risk offenders from going back to jail, as a way to cope with an ongoing budget crunch.

Already, 2,000 inmates who have been released are under supervision and they expect 1,000 more to be released by 2011 under the normal parole system, said Chairman Charles Traughber of the Tennessee Board of Probation and Parole. The move is designed to save the state $64 million within the next two budget years.

"Managing risk … that adds up to public safety," Traughber said. "Not having a revolving door, that's the kind of target."

The state's corrections system is trying to prevent technical violators — the term used for those who violate probation for not reporting their address or failing a drug test, for instance — from taking up bed space.

No early releases

While the Tennessee Department of Correction is not implementing early release programs as other states have done as a way to manage their budget crises, it is cutting costs where possible. In addition to its efforts to reduce the total number of prisoners, the state is doing things like giving male inmates only one daily container of milk, instead of two, and serving less meat, said Department of Correction Commissioner George Little.

Little said the department also is leaving 450 positions vacant, and scaling back on inmate work crews that clean up roadside areas and cemeteries, among many other jobs they perform.

Tennessee has a 42 percent recidivism rate among the 19,400 state prison inmates and an additional 7,800 people in local jails. Little said the recidivism rate is middle of the pack among other states.

James Morris, a parolee at Dismas House, a halfway house, said he thinks the recidivism rate has been hard to bring down because state prisons and jails don't address underlying problems of drug and alcohol addiction.

Morris, 46, said the forced reduction of beds will prompt the state's corrections institutions to work with parolees on substance abuse issues. Morris, who is on parole for burglary, said he was addicted to drugs, and programs like Dismas House help parolees. But he warned that some of the other prison and jail programs fail.

"It would be good for them to try to work with parolees from going back, but some of those prison programs are not geared for addiction," Morris said. "Look at all the stats for men and women … they are incarcerated because of drugs and alcohol."

A change in policy?

The state Department of Correction's approach to focus on stopping re-entry may be a sign of a change of policy in dealing with parolees, said Alex Friedmann, a prison-rights activist who is against for-profit prisons.

"Many states are re-thinking corrections due to the economic downturn, recession," Friedmann said. "The question with the TDOC is whether the type of prisoners they release, and the pre-/post-release services those prisoners receive, will result in long-term cost savings to the state through reduced recidivism."

Because Tennessee doesn't have the overcrowding issues facing some states, like California, which has to reduce its prison population by 40,000, early release of inmates is not going to happen, Little and Traughber said.

"We're in line with national trends looking at budget restrictions," Little said. "We are willing to say what works and what doesn't."

The burden to cut costs will be shared with state private contractors, such as Corrections Corporation of America, Little said. It costs taxpayers about $62 a day to house a state prison inmate and about $40 a day for a person in jail, Little said.

There is no recent state-by-state listing of recidivism rates, but the last analysis by the Department of Justice in 1994 showed that 67 percent of 272,111 people released from prisons in 15 states were re-arrested for a felony or serious misdemeanor within three years.

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