World and Nation

As states shrink budgets, concern over trimming prison populations

In the rush to save money in grim budgetary times, states nationwide have trimmed their prison populations by expanding parole programs and early releases. But the result — more convicted felons on the streets, not behind bars — has unleashed a backlash, and state officials now find themselves trying to maneuver between saving money and maintaining the public’s sense of safety.

In February, lawmakers in Oregon temporarily suspended a program they had expanded last year to let prisoners shorten their sentences for good behavior (and to save $6 million) after an anticrime group aired radio advertisements portraying the outcomes in alarming tones. “A woman’s asleep in her own apartment,” a narrator said. “Suddenly, she’s attacked by a registered sex offender and convicted burglar.

In Illinois, Gov. Patrick J. Quinn, a Democrat, described as “a big mistake” an early release program that sent some convicts who had committed violent crimes home from prison in a matter of weeks. Of more than 1,700 prisoners released over three months, more than 50 were soon accused of new violations.

An early release program in Colorado meant to save $19 million has scaled back its ambitions by $14 million after officials found far fewer prisoners than anticipated to be wise release risks. In more than five months, only 264 prisoners were released, though the program was originally designed to shrink the prison population by 2,600 over two years.

A victims’ rights group in California sued last month to block a state law that expands the credits prisoners can receive to shorten their sentences, and prosecutors in Michigan are challenging release decisions there.

“We’re not saying we shouldn’t reduce the prison population, but we’re saying you have to be very careful, and they’re making mistakes left, right and sideways,” said Jessica R. Cooper, the Oakland County prosecutor in Michigan, where the state prison population shrank by 3,200 inmates last year and where the parole rate is the highest in 16 years.

“You cannot measure those mistakes in terms of money,” Cooper said.

The changes in Michigan have been among the most pronounced, and they provide a glimpse into difficulties that could be faced by officials in about half the states, which have tinkered with parole, early release programs and sentencing laws or are considering doing so.

Authorities in some places say their changes are driven less by money than by the need to fix systems that are not working, and that such efforts were under way, in some cases, before the recession.