Looking for Cash in All the Right Places

To save more money, state lawmakers propose new exit strategies for inmates and patients.
by | April 21, 2011 AT 1:00 PM

When revenue is down, ingenuity kicks up.

This is a basic tenet for people who live south of the poverty line. In impoverished communities across the country, you’ll find poor people who have mastered the art of making money stretch, who know how to turn gas money into a meal that’ll last all week or re-use a shopping bag to replace a busted car window.

The economy’s stranglehold on state and local budgets has forced government officials to face broader challenges and look for new ways to stretch revenue in harsh conditions. And although public education and health services have suffered from legislative hacking, some institutions might be better than before once the storm passes over.

To be specific, state corrections systems have been getting much attention lately, as lawmakers try to find ways to cut the high costs of incarceration. In California, Gov. Jerry Brown proposed sending relatively low-level prisoners to county jails to empower local law enforcement and help address issues of overcrowding and expanding health care for inmates. It’s a good idea, but unfortunately this plan is currently stuck in neutral without the funding to fuel it.

In Nevada, the Associated Press reports, lawmakers are considering two measures that would release nonviolent convicts earlier and changing sentencing guidelines to make them eligible for parole sooner. According to the AP, the second measure would have saved about $1 million in a state that faces a $2.5 billion budget gap. Under AB136, Class B felons would be able to reduce time by earning “good-time credit” earned through efforts such as acquiring vocational skills or participating in drug treatment programs.

But in Oregon, lawmakers are looking to slash state mental hospital bills, which currently cost taxpayers more than $200,000 a year per patient. With the state facing a $3.5 billion budget hole, The Oregonian reports, the Oregon Legislature is considering two key proposals: the first would make it harder to use the insanity defense to enter the Oregon State Hospital; the second would make it easier for patients to leave.

Under the first bill (HB 3100), patients would be evaluated by a state-certified psychologist or psychiatrist before they could plead guilty except for insanity (which currently account for more than 70 percent of the total patients in state mental wards). According to The Oregonian, this bill alone could save $300,000 in the next two-year budget.

Earlier this year The Oregonian found there are no statewide standards for evaluating which criminal defendants should be allowed to make the insanity plea. The newspaper also reported that nearly 100 of the patients who were in the Oregon State Hospital had committed low-level felonies and misdemeanors for which they might have gotten probation. And many patients who had been deemed ready for release had been waiting for months or even years to move.

Sound familiar?

The other bill (SB 420) addresses the “back door” problem by giving the Oregon Health Authority the final say on when a patient is ready for release.

Now, before you start panicking and putting bars on your windows, getting double locks for your doors and setting up the surveillance cameras, understand that while these ideas are motivated by finances, public safety would remain a priority.

These latest proposals regarding corrections systems and mental hospitals show that lawmakers, when backed against the wall, have the ability to recognize the obvious solutions. These measures, if passed, would enhance rehabilitation and support for those who need it, which in reality should have been the focus all along. Because in correctional facilities and state mental wards, the out-of-sight, out-of-mind philosophy, as we’ve seen, can be costly.

It’s a good thing common sense is free.