The Expense of Safety
By Madeline Hong '13
By expanding parole programs and early releases, many states have decreased their prison populations. Unfortunately, however, this results in more convicted, dangerous felons on the streets. So why would states trim their prison populations? Budget cuts. It is sad that, in a rush to save money, some states have adopted early release programs that send some violent convicts home from prison in a matter of weeks. Consequently, state officials are now struggling to decide between saving money and maintaining public safety. In my opinion, safety should unquestionably always come before attempts to save money. After all, there is no monetary value of public safety.

Luckily, many states are beginning to recognize and take action against the negative effects of decreasing prison populations. For instance, Oregon recently suspended an expanded program to let prisoners with “good behavior” shorten their sentences even though the program would have saved the state six million dollars. Furthermore, in California, a victims’ rights group sued to prevent a state law that would expand the number of credits prisoners can receive to shorten their sentences. And in Illinois, Governor Patrick Quinn pronounced Illinois’ early release program “a big mistake” — of the nearly 1,700 prisoners released over three months, more than 50 were soon accused of new violations. It does not make sense to decrease the number of prisoners to save money only to have to convict them again. Doing so only frustrates the process as well as the public, who are increasingly becoming worried about their safety.

However, not all states are on board. Recently, Governor Jennifer Granholm of Michigan approved 133 commutations, a reduction in severity of a punishment imposed by law. Granholm also expanded the state’s parole board, thereby allowing more cases to be heard, and she even proposed a budget that assumes 7,500 fewer prisoners next year for savings of more than $130 million. This again, in my opinion, imposes a huge threat to public safety. Among the prisoners released on parole in 2009 was Scott Hankins, who had served only seven years of his 30-year-sentence. He was convicted for numerous sex crimes, including molesting seven-year-old girls at church. Someone who has repeatedly committed sexual crimes served only seven years when he had been sentenced to 30 — what are the social implications of this? Though Michigan defends its decision on the basis that Hankins had a good homework record, I believe this does not make up for the full 30 years that he should have served.

It is not so much that I believe prisoners should necessarily spend more time in prison because a certain, specific sentence has been decided by courts or lawyers in a plea bargain. The actual time is trivial. My central argument is that when these prisoners who committed heinous crimes are released earlier, most end up committing the same violent crimes again within a short period of time — this is the true threat. It negatively reinforces prisoners who, upon early release, may think it is worth the risk to commit another felony.

If states continue to decrease prison enrollment by expanding parole programs and early releases for the sole purpose of saving money, states are sending the message that money is more important than public safety. In that case, why have a Public Safety Commissioner in the first place? More significantly, states would be endangering the public by letting loose a stream of felons in society — if a person is convicted of a crime, the conviction should take full effect unless there are good reasons beyond increased state savings.

Issue 18, Submitted 2010-03-10 02:30:35