Your Voice: Recession Hits Prisons Hard, but Should States Let Inmates Leave Early?

(AP Photo/Steven Senne)
Photo: Joshua Gomes.

PAWTUCKET, R.I. (CBS/AP) If the state weren't so pressed for cash, Joshua Gomes might still be behind bars.

Instead, he's working temp jobs — at a construction site one week, a recycling plant another — and talks about going to college, teaching or joining the military.

Gomes went to prison after stealing a man's wallet and robbing a convenience store to feed his cocaine habit.

The former cocaine addict and dealer had to prepare for his future sooner than expected after being released from prison in June, serving a little more than half his two-year sentence.

He is one of the many inmates benefiting from a state law that allows certain prisoners to get out early if they commit to rehabilitation programs behind bars.

U.S. states under pressure to erase budget deficits and ease prison overcrowding are allowing inmates to shave greater amounts of time off their sentences through good behavior and participation in classes such as job training and substance abuse treatment.

Some victims' advocates and law enforcement professionals worry convicts released early will continue committing crimes, and they question whether rehabilitative programs offered behind bars can produce lasting improvements. But supporters say the law changes not only cut costs but also can motivate inmates — the overwhelming majority of whom eventually will be released — to acquire life skills to keep them from committing new crimes.

"I would rather have an inmate released three weeks earlier, knowing that he had dealt with his substance abuse addictions, than waiting the three weeks and releasing him untreated," Rhode Island corrections director A.T. Wall said.

Among new laws passed this year: Colorado now permits low-risk inmates 12 days per month of earned time instead of 10; Mississippi lifted a 180-day cap on earned time; and Oregon raised the amount of time inmates can deduct from their sentences for good behavior from 20 percent to 30 percent.

Gomes, 24, credits his substance abuse program with helping him appreciate how his behavior affected his family. He says the opportunity for early release gave him added drive to complete the months-long class.

"For the sake of going home a couple months earlier, yeah," Gomes said. "Guys are in there just to knock off a couple months off their sentence or make parole."

Murderers and inmates convicted of other violent crimes are generally excluded from extra credit, but drug dealers and thieves are among offenders who can benefit.

The measures come as prisons around the country have swelled with nonviolent, lower-level offenders who each can cost tens of thousands of dollars per year to keep locked up. California, which faces severe overcrowding, recently submitted a plan to cut its roughly 150,000-inmate prison population by 23,000 over two years.

Critics caution there's no guarantee inmates who acquire drug treatment or job skills will avoid trouble after their releases.

"If they cared about getting their rehabilitation, they'd be in this program without having this carrot dangled in front of them," said John Murphy, executive director of the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association, which opposes a proposal in Ohio to increase time off from one day per month to five.

Should some inmates, even drug dealers, be let out of prison early to save money or should states spend less money elsewhere and keep the convicts behind bars?