With budgets stretched thin, several states are considering letting inmates out of prison early to save money. Even though they may be more likely to commit new crimes, politicians are saying the cost of those crimes is far less than the cost to keep the prisoners locked up.

One argument in favor of letting prisoners out early suggests that those in prison for things like "minor drug offenses" aren't a danger to society and should not have been locked up in the first place. That's a nice thing to say, but where's the proof that there are people in prison "only" for "minor" drug offenses?

Where I come from, you have to commit an awful lot of crimes to actually end up in prison. And that minor drug offense? The only way it's going to get you into prison here is if you've already got a double digit rap sheet. As a former probation officer, I can't tell you how many times I've seen judges try everything they could to avoid sentencing a criminal to prison.

Let's not forget that prisons exist for two primary reasons: To punish offenders and to protect society. If it's getting too expensive to house prisoners, then maybe we need to look at ways to reduce the costs with lower cost meals and control of spending on extras for the inmates. And maybe we can put the prisoners to work doing things that will earn some money for the prison system to help pay their own way.

No one likes to admit it, but prisons are a necessary reality for our society. We have violent offenders who don't deserve to be living in society with the rest of us. We have non-violent offenders who also need to be sent a message that their behavior is not tolerated in a civilized society. Crime deterrence and our safety should come first, and governments should look for other cost-saving measures before they start opening the prison doors. Freeing inmates early should be the absolute last resort.

Tracy L. Coenen, CPA, MBA, CFE performs fraud examinations and financial investigations for her company Sequence Inc. Forensic Accounting, and is the author of Essentials of Corporate Fraud.

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