balance scales

As incarceration rates continue to climb across the country, states are trying to "get smart."

With prisons brimming over in many states, legislators throughout the country are searching for alternative solutions that would reduce recidivism and the number of first-time offenders.

"We will be seeing a lot of proposals for comprehensive treatment programs, rehabilitation and education," says Texas state Sen. Kel Seliger (R-Amarillo). "For some people and some crimes prison is inevitable, but in many cases there are more preferable options."

Seliger says there have already been some proposals for drug treatment within Texas state prisons and as a part of parole conditions.

Texas is one of eight states participating in a Pew Charitable Trusts project to introduce legislation that will increase public safety and decrease the states' dependence on prisons.

Pew, a nonpartisan research group, released a study in mid February that estimates one in every 178 Americans will be in prison by 2011.

The study says policy decisions are the most significant reason prison populations continue to increase. Some legislation cited in the study include mandatory minimum prison sentences, reduced parole grant rates and high recidivism rates among parolees who are sent to prison for breaking the rules of their release.

Among the eight states participating in the Public Safety Performance Project — Alabama, Arizona, Connecticut, Illinois, Kansas, Nebraska, Rhode Island and Texas — the study cites Connecticut as a model for prison reform.

In 2004 the state rehired 96 laid-off probation officers and set a goal to reduce the number of parolees and probationers by 20%, which they achieved. Although there could have been a number of other factors, many legislators in the state have attributed the new policies with causing a reduced prison population in both 2004 and 2005.

A state that has seen some success outside of the Pew project is Idaho, which has expanded its drug court and introduced a sort of probation boot camp called the Rider Program, says Idaho state Sen. Denton Darrington (R-Delco).

The state has also introduced the Office of Drug Control Policy to help introduce ways to limit the number of first-time offenders going to prison for minor offenses.

"The majority of first-time offenders are arrested for drug related crimes," Darrington says. "If they qualify for drug court and they're willing to put in the work to rehabilitate, it's likely they'll avoid prison altogether."

Darrington says it's a very positive way of dealing with crime, as opposed to the traditionally adversarial system.

"It seems like we're heading in the right direction," he says.