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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

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Editorial: Being smart on crime would help state budget

Budgets largely reflect how much states are willing to educate, medicate and incarcerate. The cost of incarceration can be found on any state budget, but what that document doesn’t show is what could’ve been purchased instead. We know that if we make long-term investments in early education, fewer people will be apt to break the laws. If we underfund mental health care and addiction programs, jail and prison populations will grow.

Politicians are adept at suggesting that states can have it all, but that just isn’t true. So society needs to ask how much it is willing to sacrifice to punish criminals, and whether it’s wise to lock up nonviolent offenders at current rates.

A recent Pew Center on the States study of 35 states shows that prisoners were locked up an average of nine months longer in 2009 than they were in 1990 for the same violent crimes, property crimes and drug offenses. The increase in time served cost states an estimated $10 billion a year. Furthermore, the 35 percent increase for drug offenses did not produce greater public safety, the analysis found.

In fact, every state that lowered average prison stays saw an overall drop in crime. Meanwhile, Florida, which has the nation’s highest incarceration rate, has little to show for it, other than the annual $1.4 billion in extra spending. Yet, the emotional appeal of being tough on crime is undeniable, even if the spending can’t be justified. Thus, mandatory sentencing laws that remove judicial discretion have been adopted.

In reality, this means a mandatory diversion of money from education and health care. As a result, college tuition rises and some people are kicked off government-subsidized health care. Some, that is, but not prisoners who get free health care while behind bars.

According to the study, Washington came in below the national average but still locked up offenders six months longer in 2009 than in 1990. If the state had stuck to the 1990 rate, it would’ve saved $204.8 million in 2009 alone. That’s an alluring sum when about 27,000 college students are eligible for a State Need Grant but don’t get one because of budget constraints.

This would perhaps be defensible if it made us safer, but it doesn’t.

The good news is that communities are beginning to recognize this wasteful spending and are adopting alternatives. Spokane County has embraced Drug Court; has increased parole, home monitoring, addiction and mental health programs; and has seen the daily jail population drop.

Lawmakers could help by recognizing the link between mental health care and incarceration. For instance, a mentally ill person might go off his medications and commit a crime. Once arrested and jailed, he loses coverage under Medicaid. After being released, he may reoffend before being able to regain government-funded care. As Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich has noted, his jail is the largest mental health institution in Eastern Washington.

This sad cycle helps nobody, including taxpayers. What we need now are leaders who are tough on budgets by being smart about crime.

To respond to this editorial online, go to www.spokesman.com and click on Opinion under the Topics menu.