If there was one moment that summed up the very peak of the country’s get-tough-on-crime movement, criminologists say it was the 1988 Willie Horton campaign ad.
“Bush and Dukakis on crime,” says a deep-throated male voice. “Bush supports the death penalty for first-degree murderers. Dukakis not only opposes the death penalty, he allowed first-degree murderers to have weekend passes from prison. One was Willie Horton.”
The ad goes on to describe how Horton attacked a couple while on a weekend pass, stabbing the man and raping the woman, before concluding: “Weekend prison passes — Dukakis on crime.”
Michael Dukakis’ presidential campaign never recovered. Nor did those of other candidates dubbed soft on criminals. The country was consumed by a national crime wave, fueled by the crack epidemic and gang warfare. Politicians — and voters — pushed for harsher penalties and longer sentences.
Now, 20 years later, 1 in 31 adults in this country is either behind bars or on probation or parole. It’s the highest incarceration rate in the nation’s history. With the economy in trouble, many states are taking a fresh look at who’s in prison, and why. And some states, such as Kentucky, are finding that they can no longer afford to house so many inmates.
“I have seen prisoners asleep in hallways because all the beds were filled and all the floor space was filled,” said Scott Colvin, deputy jailer at the Kenton County Jail near Independence, Ky. “You literally had to open up a door and let inmates sleep out in the hallway with the officers.”
Kenton County has solved some of its overcrowding problems by taking back beds it used to rent to federal agencies. But without that extra money, the county is hurting and has to spend its own money to lock up county offenders.
“Fifteen years ago you heard, ‘Lock ‘em up and throw away the key,’ ” Colvin said. “Not three strikes, you’re out; two strikes, you’re out. Not two strikes, you’re out, a strike and a half. We’ve hit a wall.”
This month, Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear signed a law sending hundreds of drug offenders to treatment instead of prison. It’s expected to save the state millions. Kansas, Montana and Pennsylvania are now doing the same.
Other states are facing more drastic measures. California, South Carolina and Utah are considering letting thousands of inmates out early.
“This is a big bill that’s coming due from a lot of overheated rhetoric from the ’80s and ’90s,” said Adam Gelb, who studies prison costs for the Pew Center on the States.
Gelb says prisons now house too many nonviolent property and drug offenders that never would have been sent to long prison terms in the past.
“As we cast the correctional net wider and wider,” he said, “we caught smaller and smaller fish.”
But Tom Sneddon, of the National District Attorneys Association, says states should think carefully before they upend laws that he says reduced crime. He says there’s no such thing as a small fish.
“There aren’t people sitting in prison that don’t belong there,” he said.
Sneddon says that in the 30 years he spent as a prosecutor, drug offenders were often charged with multiple crimes. But he says they’re usually offered a plea deal for just one charge, making it seem as though they have been sent to prison on a single small charge.
“To balance a budget on law enforcement and public safety’s expense is not a wise policy decision to be made,” he said.
Kansas, for one, came face to face with that decision last year, when officials realized that its prison system was about to be short half a billion dollars. The problem there, and in many states, was not just longer sentences — it was the number of inmates who return to prison for small violations to their probation or parole.
Kansas funded an extensive reentry program, and their prison population is already dropping.
Hawaii was having a similar problem with its offenders on probation. In 2004, one of the state’s toughest judges, Steven Alm, was sentencing inmates to 10 years because they missed appointments with their probation officers.
“It just rubbed me the wrong way,” Alm said. “I thought there has to be a better way to change offender behavior.”
Alm created what is now considered to be one of the most effective probation programs in the country. In the past, it could take a year before a violation sent someone to prison. Alm says telling that to a drug addict was absurd.
To a drug addict, “they might win the lottery next year. They might get hit by a bus,” he said.
Now, Alms sends them to jail that afternoon — but he keeps them there for only a few days. When they start complying, they get perks, like checking in less often.
A four-year independent study of the inmates in the program has found impressive results so far: There are more than 80 percent fewer violations, and more importantly, the number of new crimes committed by the people on probation has been cut in half.
“My understanding over the 25 years I’ve been in this business is that people can do time when they have to, but they don’t want to do it today,” he said.
Many states are now finding that they don’t want these inmates doing time today either.