How to get ourselves out of jail

Recently, Howard Skolnik retired as director of Nevada’s prison system, saying he would rather leave than preside over his department’s dismantling. What we really need to dismantle are some of our attitudes about prisons and what they do.

For years, Americans have overloaded our prisons with people who shouldn’t be there, or shouldn’t be there so long. The United States has the world’s highest prison population rate, and spends far too much money on prisons that could be better spent on almost anything else.

Nevada hasn’t done much better. Between 1996 and 2006, the number of prisoners grew 58 percent while spending on prisons more than doubled. If you remember that Arnold Schwarzenegger was the Governator, you may remember a key reason for Gray Davis’ recall: California’s excessive spending on prisons.

Nevada still has a way to go. The Treatment Advocacy Center and the National Sheriffs Association did a study. Arizona, home of Jared Loughner, is next to the bottom for finding the mentally ill in a prison instead of a hospital. Guess which state is worse. Yep, we’ve done it again.

Despite its retrograde tendencies, Nevada actually has made some moves in the right direction. According to the Pew Center on the States’ Public Safety Performance Project, in 2007, Nevada projected a 60 percent increase in prison population by 2012, “at an estimated cost to taxpayers of more than $2 billion.” The Legislature averted this by backing an expansion of in-prison education, substance-abuse treatment and a review of sentencing and corrections policies.

Assemblyman Richard Segerblom, D-Las Vegas, has introduced a bill that could help continue this trend of taking our prisons seriously. Assembly Bill 93 would set up intermediate facilities to treat alcohol and drug abuse by some offenders and parole violators. Under the bill, the Corrections Department would provide food and housing, but the Department of Health and Human Services would handle the treatment and conduct evaluations. Those being treated would be kept separate from the rest of the prison population. If and when they are ready to be released, they could further probation.

District courts would have latitude to send probation violators to an intermediate sanction facility instead of back into the prison population, or just have them keep coming in for regular checks. The idea is to keep addicts from falling through the cracks, or put them back in prison if treatment might rehabilitate them.

Costs are a concern, so the bill says, “A probation violator or offender who is placed in an intermediate sanction facility to receive treatment shall pay the cost of his or her treatment and supervision to the extent of his or her financial resources.” But since not every addict is rich, he or she can be put in a facility even without “the financial resources to pay any or all of the related costs.”

The cost to the state would be minor: $500,000 over the biennium to study whether the program works. The hint of a possibility exists that the federal government might help. Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., co-sponsored a bill in the last Congress, the Honest Opportunity Probation with Enforcement (HOPE) Initiative Act, that would empower the U.S. attorney general to provide grants for things like the intermediate sanctions program that Segerblom proposes. The House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security held hearings. What the new Republican House will do remains to be seen.

Any businessperson will tell you that sometimes you have to spend money to make money. Here is a bill that would cost little and ultimately might lead to substantial savings in the prison budget. Not to mention that if it reduces drug dependency and crime, society might benefit, and maybe the state could eventually start funding education again.