Pattern of Prison Reforms Leads To Closing of Facilities in U.S.

WHEELING – Several states are closing prisons after enacting legislation similar to a bill West Virginia lawmakers are now considering.

Fifteen states – Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Nevada, New York, North Carolina, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia and Washington – have closed prisons during the past two years, according to a report by the National Conference of State Legislatures. Prison populations in 26 states decreased in 2009, and recidivism rates also have declined. The report suggests the reductions are a result of sentencing and corrections policy changes.

Increased funding for re-entry and community supervision programs – a component of the West Virginia bill – has helped raise the number of non-violent offenders released on parole in states such as Michigan while still allowing community members to feel safe. In some cases, correctional facilities with the highest operating costs are targeted for closure, and a portion of the savings is directed toward providing more effective community supervision for inmates who are released.

“Because of successful reforms, more offenders are safely supervised in the community and recidivism rates are down,” the NCSL states.

The Pew Center on the States says that nearly $9 out of every $10 spent on corrections is used for running state prisons. But in Texas, reforms that reduced the prison population and allowed for closure of a 100-year-old facility resulted in a savings of $25 million and left the state-owned site available for development.

The NCSL credits such savings to prison staff furloughs and reduced administrative support, which can result from a smaller inmate population.

Some groups, including public employee unions, have expressed concerns about public safety and job losses when plans to close prisons are discussed. But closures in Texas and Michigan have shown that such moves can free up resources for other priorities such as education or even create opportunities for economic development at those sites.

Additional cost-saving measures in some states have included more competitive bidding for food services and inmate health care.

The West Virginia Senate last week approved a measure that would release non-violent offenders early but make them subject to post-release supervision.

Risk assessments would be conducted following their release, and they would be directed to undergo substance abuse treatment if necessary.

The bill was introduced in the Senate at the request of Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin by Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall. It is now under consideration by the House Judiciary Committee.