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Prison alternatives more profitable for offenders

Jeff Tyler Jan 6, 2012

Steve Chiotakis:California Governor Jerry Brown has told local officials across the state that he’s going to provide enough money to cover added inmates at county lock-ups. A new state law is sending inmates convicted of lower-level offenses to county jails instead of state prison. Prison cuts are helping state budgets balance, and a lot of states are doing that by favoring alternatives to prison time for property and drug crimes. That may also raise the economic prospects for offenders.

As Marketplace’s Jeff Tyler explains.

Jeff Tyler: Many states around the country are experimenting with something called accountability or problem-solving courts. Variations include drug court, DUI court and mental health court.

Marc Levin is with the Texas Public Policy Foundation. He says alternative sentencing is generally for nonviolent and first-time offenders. And the programs are not easy.

Marc Levin: You have months of drug testing. If you owe restitution, you have to pay that. Holding a job is in fact a condition of the court.

Those who pass often avoid having a conviction on their record. Judith Greene follows prison trends for the nonprofit Justice Strategies.

Judith Greene: A felony conviction is a huge barrier to employment in the future. Eligibility for housing, etcetera. So it’s a big advantage for someone to go through the system and get the kind of services they need in order to get back on track, and avoid having the barriers that would face them if they got a felony conviction.

If it weren’t for problem-solving courts, 36-year old Lamont Williams says:

Lamont Williams: I would be probably in Attica. Or Sing-Sing.

For life. He had several strikes against him when he got caught shoplifting to pay for his drug habit. Now, instead of prison, he’s home in Brooklyn.

Williams: I’m clean off drugs. I have a job. I have my kids back in my life. I have goals.

A study in Virginia found that in the 18 months after re-entering the civilian job world, those who successfully completed alternative sentencing earned around $42,000, while folks who went to jail earned less than half that.

I’m Jeff Tyler for Marketplace.

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