States Cut Prison Costs; Can Federal Government Do the Same?

  • February 04, 2016
  • by Charles Babington

Like dozens of other states, Georgia faced a quandary five years ago. The prison population was soaring, costs were climbing, and taxpayers—who were seeing no reductions in recidivism rates—were asking what they were getting for their money.

For decades, Georgia had handled crime like many other states, especially those with conservative electorates. “Lock ’em up” was the motto, and new prison construction was the means. By 2011, the number of inmates in the state had doubled from two decades earlier and the annual price tag for prisons had grown to $1 billion. Governor Nathan Deal (R) wanted change, even if it carried the political risk of being seen as soft on crime.

After enlisting support from state legislative and judicial leaders five years ago, he turned to The Pew Charitable Trusts’ public safety performance project, which has now worked in more than half of the 50 states and developed a record of finding smarter, data-driven ways to keep communities safe while earning a better return on taxpayers’ investments in prisons and corrections programs.

In less than two years, Pew had helped guide policymakers through comprehensive revisions of criminal and juvenile justice laws that reduced prison populations and changed the policy discourse among state leaders.

During the 2014 gubernatorial campaign, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution noted a significant drop in imprisonment rates, especially among minorities. “The change reflects a new philosophy on sentencing in Georgia, which led the nation in criminal punishment as recently as 2009 but is now bent on saving money and changing lives,” the newspaper reported.

Deal emphasized this new approach throughout the campaign and won re-election on a platform once unthinkable in conservative states: expanding the types of reforms that were already sending fewer Georgians to prison and shortening many inmates’ sentences, while also expanding programs to help nonviolent offenders turn to productive lives.

In hindsight, the governor’s positions may not have been so politically fraught after all. Increasingly, the leaders of many states are searching for more efficient and effective ways of protecting the public and reducing what has been one of the fastest-growing costs to taxpayers.

These leaders are reacting to the fact that the U.S. prison population has soared over the past three decades, rising more than 700 percent, thanks largely to state laws and policies that put more offenders behind bars and kept them there longer. By 2008, 1 in 100 adults in the U.S. was imprisoned. And costs had risen, too, with states spending more than $50 billion annually on corrections.

After decades of rising prison costs and stagnant recidivism rates, many states found better ways to protect the public.

But despite more people being locked up, there was little long-term impact on public safety. Studies attribute as much as 25 percent of the drop in crime since the early 1990s to increased incarceration. But in 2011, Pew published State of Recidivism: The Revolving Door of America’s Prisons, a report showing that recidivism rates had remained virtually unchanged for decades despite the new laws and the jump in prison spending. Working with the Association of State Correctional Administrators, Pew’s researchers showed that more than 40 percent of the inmates released in 2004 were back behind bars by 2007. That, the report concluded, “is an unhappy reality, not just for offenders, but for the safety of American communities.”

While other organizations now work on the issue, a decade ago Pew was among the first, conducting the extensive research that has yielded troves of new data about sentencing, incarceration, parole and probation, recidivism, and other key subjects. “The issue wasn’t on anybody’s radar a decade ago,” says Adam Gelb, director of Pew’s public safety performance project. “It wasn’t discussed much at all, and many elected officials believed Americans just had an unquenchable thirst for punishment.” Today’s political climate, Gelb says, “is unrecognizable” in comparison, “and almost unimaginable if you look back just eight years.”

So are the trends in the states, when compared with the get-tough-on-crime era. A Pew analysis of Justice Department data shows that between 2009 and 2014, there was no causal link between higher incarceration rates and lower crime. In fact, 30 states have managed to reduce both.

In state after state, Nolan says, Pew has helped leaders realize that there are tested, proven ways to handle criminal justice more efficiently, effectively, and humanely.

The intensive technical assistance provided to Georgia and other states is part of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, a collaboration between Pew and the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance, in which Pew works with the Council of State Governments Justice Center, the Crime and Justice Institute, and other partners. When states seek help, Pew and its partners start by garnering bipartisan support from leaders of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. They obtain letters from the governor, Senate president, House speaker, and chief justice acknowledging the problems and specifically asking for assistance.

Pew then gets to work, analyzing the state’s data to uncover the main causes of prison population growth; strategies to slow or reverse it; shortcomings in parole and probation services; and viable ways to reduce costs while combating recidivism. Because the circumstances in each state are different, there is no magic solution that fits them all.

An early test came in Texas, long known for tough corrections policies. Between 1979 and 2000, Texas built 137 prisons. By the mid-2000s, state officials were growing increasingly concerned about the rising corrections costs and began to seek alternatives. Helped by the Council of State Governments Justice Center and Pew, Texas began by identifying the nonviolent offenders who presented little danger to the public and could go into alternative programs. After launching reforms in 2007, state leaders soon were saving hundreds of millions of dollars annually by diverting money to substance abuse and mental health programs, halfway houses for released offenders, and short-term facilities to hold people who violated parole or probation rules.

Since then, more than half the states have passed laws to improve public safety, provide alternatives to prison, and save money. Many divert some of the resulting savings to parole and probation programs designed to help former inmates succeed in society and avoid returning to prison.

“Pew has been absolutely critical to the success in the states,” says Patrick J. Nolan, a leading national advocate of corrections reforms. “Its data is the gold standard.” Nolan holds a unique place among criminal justice experts: A former Republican leader in the California State Assembly, he spent more than two years in federal prison on a racketeering charge stemming from a government sting operation—which gave him, he says, special insight into how society deals with offenders, punishment, and public safety.

In state after state, Nolan says, Pew has helped leaders realize that there are tested, proven ways to handle criminal justice more efficiently, effectively, and humanely. Too often in legislative debates, he says, information is a matter “of conjecture and opinion. It’s like a barroom discussion: ‘Says who?’” By working in a bipartisan way across the political spectrum, Nolan says, Pew presents well-researched reports that replace opinions with facts.

In less than two years, Pew had helped guide policymakers through comprehensive revisions of criminal and juvenile justice laws that reduced prison populations and changed the policy discourse among state leaders.

Seeing the success in other states, Georgia officials decided in 2011 that they could wait no longer to address a prison population that had more than doubled since 1990, to nearly 56,000. The state was spending more than $1 billion a year on corrections, with more growth projected.

And Georgians were beginning to question what they were getting for the investment. The rate at which former inmates returned to prison for committing a new felony within three years of their release had remained steady—at nearly 30 percent—for a decade.

So state leaders created the Georgia Council on Criminal Justice Reform, which turned to Pew for research and technical assistance. The analysis produced some telling findings to guide legislators and the governor: Well over half of Georgia’s new inmates were drug and property offenders, and courts had few viable sentencing alternatives to prison. In addition, parole and probation agencies lacked the resources to adequately supervise inmates who were released.

With help from Pew, the Council on Criminal Justice Reform made several major recommendations: Use prison space mainly for serious offenders. Strengthen probation and alternative sentencing options. Relieve local jail crowding. And find better ways to measure public safety and criminal justice performance. The Georgia Legislature unanimously endorsed the package. “Pew and other stakeholders provided invaluable support and input throughout this effort,” says Gov. Deal. “Their work resulted in bipartisan legislation that is paying dividends.” He signed the legislation in May 2012.

Georgia officials said the law would eliminate the need for any new prison beds in the first five years, saving at least $264 million. In the first year, the state funneled more than $45 million in savings from prison construction into efforts to reduce new crimes by former inmates, particularly those with drug and alcohol problems. Services include housing, job training, substance abuse treatment, mentoring—even help finding a job for someone else in the supervised person’s household, “because stability in that home helps everyone in that home,” says Michael Nail, commissioner of the new Georgia Department of Community Supervision.

Following the success of the criminal justice effort, Georgia leaders used the same data-driven approach in partnership with Pew to develop and enact sweeping juvenile justice reforms in 2013. By reducing the number of less-serious offenders sent to secure facilities and investing in effective, community-based alternatives to incarceration, the legislation was projected to avert the need for two new juvenile corrections facilities. In the nine months after implementation, the number of youth held in secure facilities fell by 14 percent, fueled by a 62 percent drop in counties that received funding to steer lower-level offenders toward alternatives.

While still working with states, Pew has begun to focus on the federal prison system, where the inmate population has climbed from about 24,000 in 1980 to more than 215,000 in 2013, at a cost of $6.7 billion a year—about one-fourth of the Justice Department’s spending. A Pew report released in August shows that 95,000 federal prisoners are serving time for drug-related offenses, up from 5,000 in 1980. Part of the growth came from changes in drug crime patterns and law enforcement practices, but the analysis also found that federal sentencing laws enacted during the 1980s and 1990s have required more drug offenders to go to prison—and stay there much longer—than three decades ago.

A follow-up report in November found that the average length of time federal inmates served more than doubled from 1988 to 2012, from 17.9 months to 37.5 months—at a correspondingly high increase in costs: The analysis determined that keeping inmates those additional 19.6 months costs taxpayers an additional $2.7 billion annually.

“There’s a lot the federal government can do” to lower its prison population and costs without endangering public safety, says Representative Bobby Scott (D-VA), co-sponsor of a major reform bill pending in Congress. He’s urging lawmakers to reduce mandatory minimum sentences and devote more resources to drug courts, rehabilitation programs, police training, and pretrial diversion programs.

Scott’s bipartisan House bill draws heavily from the states’ successes, which proponents say could apply at the federal level. Among other things, the legislation would allow federal inmates, and former inmates under supervision, to earn credits by completing certain evidence-based programs. It would provide new authority to impose swift and certain sanctions on those who violate their supervision rules.

Pew’s Gelb agrees that the federal system could reduce recidivism by strengthening its probation and post-prison supervision programs.

The Senate is also weighing reform legislation, with Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, telling reporters, “I’ve learned from what some states have done, changes could be made and money could be saved and not hurt society with people that do harm coming from behind bars.”

“States as diverse as Connecticut, South Carolina, Georgia, and Texas are showing that it’s possible to cut crime and imprisonment at the same time,” Gelb says. “These state successes have fueled the momentum in Congress and given it the best opportunity in years to protect public safety, hold offenders accountable, and contain the spiraling cost of the federal prison system.”

At both the state and federal levels, “I think we’re just beginning,” says Nolan, the national corrections reform advocate. He hopes more states will adopt data-driven policies in the areas of juvenile justice, mental health care, community supervision of offenders, and the handling of elderly inmates.

And, he adds “there’s plenty of work ... to come.”

Data Points

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