Remember two or three decades ago when voters got fed up with "revolving-door" incarceration and "wrist-slap" punishments? The result was a massive wave of "three strikes" laws, "throw away the key" campaign speeches and prison construction.
Well, the "Field of Dreams" approach ("Build it and they will come") has turned into a field of nightmares for cash-strapped states. According to The Wall Street Journal, at least 20 states are exploring ways of thinning out prison populations via expanded probation and parole programs, enhanced drug rehab programs and other strategies.
Fiscally prudent citizens can certainly understand the state beancounters' concerns. States spend a total of $50 billion a year (7 percent of their discretionary budget) on corrections. If the prison costs could be trimmed, there would be more money for education, federal mandates and new state mottoes (such as "The Jump When Corporate Negotiators Say Jump and Ask How High On The Way Up State" and "No, Honest, Interesting Stuff Actually Happened In This State As Recently As 150 or 200 Years Ago State").
But the states face heavy opposition. For-profit prison operators have always taken it for granted that prisons are a growth industry, so they will not retreat willingly. I understand that one of the companies had rather grandiose schemes for prison construction. ("In light of recent public concern over zombies, we feel it prudent for states to construct a special prison for the exhumed remains of Billy the Kid, Al Capone, Pretty Boy Floyd, and Bonnie and Clyde. If you can't get Clyde, at least let Lester here fulfill his lifelong dream of using a nightstick on Warren Beatty...")
Unionized prison employees and towns that count the local prison as their largest industry will certainly put up a fight. I sympathize with the plight of communities that have let the prisons become "too big to fail," but perhaps this is the kick in the pants they need to develop a more diversified economy. If they're accustomed to profiting from human misery, perhaps they should try recruiting a women's footwear factory or the Ben Affleck Film Festival or something.
Organizations such as the National Fraternal Order of Police have expressed anxiety about the prospects of untold numbers of criminals being dumped helter skelter back into the populace. They fear that Neighborhood Watch programs will become Neighborhood "Hey! Where's My Watch???" programs.
Law enforcement agencies are scrambling to get voters stirred up in the face of expectations-lowering state campaigns such as "Help McGruff the Crime Dog Take A Big Ol' Friendly Nibble Out of Crime," "Pay No Attention To The Man Behind The Dumpster" and "Low-level Drug Offenders, Low-level Russian Nuclear Fuel Rods: It's All Good."
The state legislatures and their opponents will try to redefine categories of crime. The states will conjure up more parole-worthy non-violent cases ("I can practically guarantee that the prisoner will never again murder the entire Ivanovich family living at 615 Elm Street"), while the other side will try to find new categories of violent criminals who need to be locked away (i.e. jaywalkers, litterbugs and hardened criminals who look cross-eyed at their little sister).
In the final analysis, how can you put a price tag on public safety -- especially since some $#@^& just stole my label maker??? Forget prisons. We need a rope and tree limb. What? They stole the tree, too??? Aaarrrrggghhh!
©2011 Danny Tyree. Danny welcomes reader e-mail responses at firstname.lastname@example.org. Danny's' weekly column is distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons Inc. newspaper syndicate.