Today the New York Times has several articles describing the effects of budget cuts in various states. On the front page is a story about Arizona's effort to save money by shutting roadside rest stops, angering people in that state. Inside, on the front page of the National section, is a story about protests in California over cuts to education. Yet back on the front page is an alarmist article that will set back efforts to close budget gaps other than by cutting services, with the headline: "Safety is Issue as Budget Cuts Free Prisoners." The article talks of a "backlash" that has been unleashed in states that have tried to cut costs by reducing their prison populations. But in fact the article doesn't really describe any such backlash - no elected officials being confronted by frightened and angry constituents, no hordes of fed-up citizens marching in the streets, no stirring among the denizens of talk radio. Instead, the article itself seems designed to create and fuel such a backlash, by focusing on a convicted child molester who was released from a prison in Michigan.
The article spends several paragraphs describing the crime he committed, quoting from the court psychologist's report, describing the heroic efforts of a prosecutor in Michigan to have him sent back to prison. We don't learn until near the end of the article that he had actually served his sentence (the minimum time under an indeterminate sentence), had been released under strict rules limiting his movement, including GPS tracking, and had, in fact, been sent back to prison as a result of the prosecutor's successful appeal of his release.
The whole point of the article seems to be "They are letting bad and scary people out of prison! Be very afraid!"
In fact, the vast majority of people in our prisons, and the vast majority of those released early in efforts to save money under severe budget constraints, are nonviolent drug offenders. A substantial portion of them are in prison for having broken a rule of probation or parole - like missing a meeting or having a positive drug test - rather than for breaking a law. Releasing people convicted of non-violent drug offenses early, especially into community-based treatment programs, makes a lot of sense. So does not imprisoning people for minor parole or probation violations. But one wouldn't know that from the Times article, which seems to have been fed straight onto the front page by prosecutors and law enforcement lobbies.
The United States has five percent of the world's population, yet we have 25% of the world's prisoners, a huge portion of them convicted of non-violent drug crimes. We lock up more people for drug crimes than all of Western Europe, with more people than we have, locks up for all crimes.
The budget crisis is forcing states to look at whether it makes sense to continue to fight a failed Drug War that criminalizes conduct that should be treated as a health issue. More and more states - including New York, New Jersey, Michigan and even Texas - are deciding that their money could be better spent providing services to their citizens than locking up tens of thousands of people for non-violent drug offenses. Shame on the Times, if this article has the effect of freezing these forward-thinking legislators and state officials in their tracks, in fear of a "backlash" that the Times seems eager to create and fuel.
Jill Harris is Managing Director of Public Policy at the Drug Policy Alliance (www.drugpolicy.org), based in New York.