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Need Some Money? Free Some Prisoners!

Since late summer, several states have passed into law resolutions to release thousands of prisoners before they've completed their sentences. The goal is to help make up for immense budget shortfalls. The states, including California, Colorado, Illinois, and Oregon, have targeted their bloated prison systems in their quest to save hundreds of millions and make up for immense budget shortfalls. (Some have balanced budget amendments that require them to work out immediate savings.) But how exactly would such a plan work? With former prisoners hitting the streets this month in several states, we though it would be helpful to explain just what you need to know:

Who is eligible for early release?

While the specifics may vary from state to state, the eligible inmates are those who are deemed “low risk." Typically, this means non-violent or non-person offenders, petty thieves, drug offenders, or those who are medically incapacitated.

In Colorado, for instance, “low-risk” applies to prisoners who are within six months of their mandatory release dates. According to Colorado Attorney General John Suthers, releasing "low-risk" inmates could be dangerous. “If you have six months to go before mandatory release date, one of two things has happened--neither of which are good for public safety," explained Suthers, who also used to be the director of Colorado's prison system. "One, you’ve been passed over for discretionary parole because you’ve been deemed a risk. Or, two, you’ve waived discretionary parole because you don’t think you have a chance. So this group of inmates we’re talking about is a relatively high risk one.”

Colorado Governor Bill Ritter’s spokesman has said that “habitually violent offenders” will not be released. That said, the Denver Post hasreported that, on the list of 1,969 prisoners being considered for early release, there are “[t]wenty people convicted of murder, attempted murder, manslaughter or criminally negligent homicide” in addition to “88 robbers, 14 kidnappers and 14 abusers who seriously injured children.” While the state's parole board ultimately decides which eligible prisoners will be released based on risk-assessment scales, the final group will almost definitely include some of these violent offenders--if not, Suthers says, the state simply won’t get the savings it needs.

Does this pose a risk to public safety?

According to Suthers and JimMarquart, head of the criminology program at University of Texas-Dallas, who worked with California on its recent release program, the short answer is yes. With already soaring recidivism rates, the likelihood that these felons will commit new crimes is high. Recently, the Los Angeles Times pointed out that 70 percent of prisoners released on parole in California end up back in prison within three years.

Lessons from other early release programs also don't offer much hope. Similar release resolutions have been passed during other economic downturns throughout the 1980s, ‘90s, and early 2000s. From 1980 to 1983, Illinois released more than 9,000 convicts up to a year early for good behavior. Within six months, ten percent of the inmates released early were rearrested and returned to prison. In December 2002, the governor of Kentucky ordered the release of almost 900 low-level inmates near the end of their terms. By January, just one month later, four parolees had already been arrested for felonies ranging from kidnapping to bank robbery.

Along with early releases, some states are aiming to save money by reducing the tenure of their parole sentences. For instance, in Colorado, parole will be shortened from five to two years. This means that, only a few years out of jail, former prisoners who commit crimes are more likely to get away with them, because they won’t have parole officers checking on them. (But, according to Suthers, during the two years in which they are on parole, the released prisoners will be more closely monitored.)

What effects, in addition to those on public safety, will their release have on communities?

According to Marquart, released inmates will be “competing with law-abiding citizens” in a tough job market and will probably be underemployed (which could push convicts back into old habits, although the links between unemployment and crime have been heavily debated). In addition to jobs, they’ll need medical and other social services, the cost of which will most likely fall to county or town governments. Local police forces also may become overextended as they deal with former inmates without parole officers and try to counter the public safety risks posed by the released prisoners. “It’s like grabbing the hose and cutting off the water, and the water is going to balloon up someplace else," Marquart explained. "OK, the correctional budget goes down, but the [problems on the] community side is going to go up."

As Marquart summed it up, “It’s a high-risk gamble.” And, given all the downsides, one has to wonder if it's even worth it.