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February 10, 2008 - Des Moines Register (IA)

Editorial: Let's Work At Not Building Prisons

Iowa has a choice: Undertake its biggest prison-building spree in history, or look for alternatives that reduce the need for more prisons.

That choice must be made soon. The Legislature is considering a recommendation from Gov. Chet Culver to build a new state penitentiary and a new women's prison at a cost of $200 million. A legislative committee proposed that, plus a $25 million expansion of the prison at Newton.

State corrections officials say the Men's Reformatory in Anamosa is next in line for replacement. And, if the steady growth in prison population continues as projected, the state could face building as many as three more prisons in the next decade.

There are alternatives to some, if not all, of this prison building, and it is time for the state to take them seriously.

1. Reduce prison sentences. The Legislature has contributed to prison crowding by mandating stiff sentences and reducing early parole. Even modest increases in sentences have a major impact on prison populations. There is no documented link between longer sentences and changes in criminal behavior. Yet lawmakers have resisted recommendations to reform sentencing.

2. Assure convicts a successful transition upon release. Parolees who get help after prison with mental and physical health care, employment and counseling are more likely to succeed. Without that safety net, however, they are more likely to violate parole, commit new crimes and return to prison.

3. Divert more offenders from prison. There is growing evidence that offenders with drug and alcohol problems or mental illnesses can be steered to productive, crime-free lives by completing far less costly programs in their own communities, where they have the support of family and friends.

Commendably, Governor Culver has recommended the Legislature spend $43 million to help parolees re-enter society and to divert people from prison in the first place. He recommended investing in re-entry programs for those leaving prison and expanding community-based programs that serve as alternatives to prison. The Legislature should act on those recommendations.

Court and corrections officials have learned from experience that locking people up for long periods and then dumping them on the street does not make communities safer. Nor does prison by itself transform people into law-abiding citizens.

There are more effective ways to do both. Among the most promising examples are drug courts, described in the companion essay, which now operate in 10 Iowa counties.

Drug courts give a second chance to defendants who turn to crime because of drug and alcohol addictions. These defendants avoid prison if they complete a period of intensive supervision by the court and probation officers. Iowa's drug courts have a growing record of success.

The courts have stepped outside the usual put-people-in-prison box to work with a broad spectrum of social-services agencies, public and private. The primary aim, rather than punishing people who make mistakes, is to help address the problems that lead to bad decisions. The drug-court model should be expanded to other categories of crime -- such as domestic abuse or drunken driving.

Although drug courts have wide support among court and corrections officials, funding is spread among several state agencies and relies in part on federal dollars that would be eliminated in President Bush's 2009 federal budget. The Iowa Legislature should make sure the money is there to continue the program and expand it to all 99 counties.

Drug courts are just one example of how Iowa can divert people from prison, reform criminals and make communities safer.

Before the Legislature agrees to build more prisons, it should make sure the state has done everything possible to create alternatives for people who don't need to be there.

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