- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 2, 2009

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty wants to help balance the District’s recession-squeezed budget by allowing as many as 80 percent of the city’s inmates to qualify for early release, borrowing a tactic that has stirred controversy elsewhere in the nation.

The city hopes to save $4.4 million in fiscal 2010 under the plan, which would reduce the prison population by 2 percent from its current daily average of 3,000 inmates.

Current law permits sentenced inmates to earn up to five days off their sentences each month by completing specified academic and vocational programs. The new proposal would extend the program to pretrial inmates and allow them to earn time off simply by participating in the programs.

Officials said about 2,400 inmates would be eligible to receive good-time credits under the proposal. If each eligible inmate earned an average of five days of good time, it would reduce the average inmate population by about 65 people.

The plan has drawn at least initial concern from a key D.C. Council member, who stressed the importance of ensuring it would not be detrimental to public safety if enacted.

“This is pretty fundamental to public safety, that if we’re going to release people early, we need to know that we’re doing it right and for a good cause,” said Phil Mendelson, at-large Democrat and chairman of the council’s Committee on Public Safety and the Judiciary.

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The proposal in the District - where city leaders have faced an $800 million revenue shortfall - echoes the approach of other jurisdictions attempting to tackle fiscal problems in part by trimming correctional spending.

More than 2.3 million people are housed in U.S. prisons and jails, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, while a January report by the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) showed that two-thirds of the states were projecting a cumulative shortfall of $84.3 billion for fiscal 2010.

Ryan King, a policy analyst with the criminal justice lobbying organization the Sentencing Project, said states have considered or adopted measures granting some inmates early release to help cut costs, while other proposals are similar to the District’s program of shorter stays.

“There are a number of states in the last couple of years because of growing prison populations and very tight state budgets [that] have been forced to revisit some of their past correctional practices,” Mr. King said.

In Virginia, Gov. Tim Kaine, a Democrat, in December proposed allowing the early release of nonviolent inmates up to 90 days prior to the completion of their sentence, instead of the state’s policy of allowing 30-day early releases.

The proposal was projected to save the state at least $5 million in the face of a $4 billion budget shortfall, but it was scuttled amid opposition in the Republican-controlled House of Delegates.

California had faced a $42 billion deficit, but Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, last year dropped a proposal to release some inmates with less than 20 months remaining on their sentences after a lack of support from lawmakers.

The governor reportedly hoped to save the state roughly $1 billion and reduce its prison population by about 22,000 inmates.

“Such a proposal is not only extremely irresponsible, it is also dangerous,” Assemblywoman Jean Fuller, a Republican, said about Mr. Schwarzenegger’s plan.

Kentucky officials last year approved an early release program that was expected to shorten sentences for about 2,000 prisoners. Michigan officials are moving to expedite the review and possible parole of 12,000 inmates.

NCSL policy analyst Alison Lawrence said six states last year enacted measures related to earned time credits, and at least four have passed measures this year. Sentence-reducing legislation runs “the whole gamut” regarding what inmates must do to earn credit, she said.

“You see in some states, just sitting in your prison cell abiding by the rules and regulations of the prison, you get ‘X’ amount of days,” she said.

In the District, credits can also be earned through work details and for good behavior, but they are only available to those who have not been convicted of certain crimes involving weapons, drug distribution or violence.

Those eligible inmates who are convicted of a violent crime can receive a reduction of up to 15 percent of their minimum sentence. Officials said credits can be revoked for bad behavior, and there are no plans to amend that provision or the 15 percent provision.

At a recent hearing before Mr. Mendelson’s committee, D.C. Department of Corrections Director Devon Brown stressed that most inmates are only in his agency’s custody for about a month and he plans on requiring inmates to participate for at least that amount of time before being eligible for the benefits.

Mr. Brown also said officials were still working to develop regulations for the program. He emphasized that increasing opportunities available to inmates would not only aid the individual, but allow officials to better manage their prison population as well.

“It’s my belief as a behavioral scientist that any participation by an inmate toward bettering their condition is worth rewarding,” he said. “To have them engaged serves many benefits.”

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