Alternatives to Incarceration Can Save Millions for Cash-Strapped States

With the highest incarceration rate in the world, in 2008 the U.S. puts one out of every 48 working-age men behind bars and spent $75 billion on corrections, the majority of which was spent on incarceration.  To make matters worse, a new study released by the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) found that the $40 billion jump in state spending on corrections between 1988 and 2008 outpaced nearly every other state budget item,  painting a bleak picture of incarceration in the U.S. and the resulting budgetary strain on the states. 

As this Dispatch will outline, U.S. incarceration rates have far outpaced the growth in the population as a result of inflexible policies from "truth in sentencing" to mandatory minimum laws.  These statutes crowd prisons with non-violent offenders and prevent probation and parole from being used to reduce ballooning prison budgets.

Partly due to recognition that filling prisons with non-violent offenders is a waste of human potential and partly because of the current budget crisis, states are beginning to reform their prison and sentencing policies to reduce bloated incarceration rates.  Some states are engaging in emergency cuts in prison populations while others are more systematically cutting back or eliminating entirely the mandatory minimum and other rigid sentencing rules that fill prisons in the first place.

States are also directing some of the funds that will be saved from lower incarceration rates to helping ex-felons integrate back into the communities which they will be returning after prison.  Such reentry programs recognize that investing in communities can replace the costs of incarceration with jobs and productive activity that actually generate economic development, tax revenues and a safer environment for all residents.

Table of Contents:

- The Costs of Exploding Incarceration Rates

- States Taking Action to Combat Bloated Incarceration Costs

- Improving Community Corrections Systems to Reduce Prison Populations

- Justice Reinvestment to Reduce Recidivism Rates

- Conclusion

The Costs of Exploding Incarceration Rates

The U.S. has the highest incarceration rates among comparable developed nations around the world, and incarcerates more people than any nation in the world.  The U.S. has 753 of every 100,000 people in prison or jail, which is more than ten times the rate that Japan incarcerates their population (63 per 100,000) and seven times the rate of countries like Germany (90 per 100,000), Italy (92 per 100,000), France (96 per 100,000), or Canada just to the North (116 per 100,000).   

Incarceration rates have skyrocketed — by more than 240% since 1980, as the study documents, yet the total number of violent crimes was only about 3% higher in 2008 than it was in 1980, while the total number of property crimes actually decreased by 20%.  Incarceration rates have even outpaced the U.S. population, which only increased by 33% during that time period.

Rather than incarceration rates being driven by higher crime, they have instead been driven by rigid "tough on crime" policy decisions, including three-strikes laws, truth in sentencing laws, and mandatory minimums, which have led to an increase in non-violent offenses being treated as harshly as violent crimes.  Coupled with an ideological move away from probation and parole in the criminal justice system, convicted criminals today are much more likely than in the past to be sentenced to prison instead of probation, and to serve longer terms with less chance of being released on parole.  As a result, non-violent offenders comprise over 60% of the prison and jail population.

Center for  Economic and Policy Research - The High Budgetary Cost of Incarceration

States Taking Action to Combat Bloated Incarceration Costs

Simply reducing the incarceration rate of non-violent offenders by 50%, which would return the U.S. to 1993's already-high incarceration rate, would save states $16.9 billion per year without any appreciable deterioration in public safety.  This savings — which amounts to a quarter of annual corrections budgets in the states — would allow state and local governments to avoid cuts to necessary social services, education, and other programs that are being squeezed by the current fiscal crisis.  

Some states are desperately engaging in emergency measures to cut their prison populations to save money. Last year, California passed a prison reform plan that would reduce the state’s prison population by 27,000 and save $1 billion.  It still stops short of the $1.2 billion in cuts mandated by the state budget agreement - not to mention a court order that California reduce its prison population by 43,000 inmates - but it is a step in the right direction. 

Repealing Mandatory Minimums: A more effective way to dramatically reduce the incarceration rate of non-violent offenders, both in California and elsewhere, would be to repeal mandatory minimums and other misguided "tough on crime policies."  What was originally intended to be a deterrent for crime has actually had little to negative effect on public safety, while adding to mounting state costs.  But repealing mandatory minimums would restore judicial discretion and allow judges to tailor sentences on a case-by-case basis.  Not only are costly prison terms avoided by sending drug offenders and addicts to appropriate treatment programs, but sentences are more effective - the Rand Corporation has famously calculated that one dollar spent on drug treatment reduces crime related to cocaine use as much as 15 dollars spent on criminal justice responses. 

New York and Rhode Island repealed their mandatory minimum for drug offenders in 2009, while Michigan is building on its successful campaigns in 1998 and 2002 that resulted in the most sweeping overhaul of mandatory sentencing laws.  More than a dozen states, including New Jersey and South Carolina, have also followed suit and significantly narrowed their mandatory sentencing laws, and other states - most notably, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania - are taking first steps toward sensible sentencing laws.  Delaware and Ohio, among other states, debated the repeal of mandatory minimums this year.  

Expanding Earned Time Credits: Many states have expanded their "earned-time credits" programs, in which prisoners can shave off as much as 30% of their prison sentences by finishing educational courses, working, or any other experience that improves life behind bars.  In Oregon, 950 prisoners had already been released 55 days ahead of schedule before state lawmakers suspended the program until 2011 due to political backlash.  Though public outcry has focused on the effect such programs have on crime rates, a review by the National Council on Crime and Delinquency found unchanged or lower recidivism rates among prisoners who benefited from accelerated-release programs in states including Illinois, Wisconsin and FloridaCalifornia, Colorado, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan, and Wisconsin are just some of the states that have already accelerated prison releases or are considering measures to do so. 

Rand Corporation - Controlling Cocaine: Supply Versus Demand Programs
The National Council on Crime and Delinquency - Accelerated Release: A Literature Review
Families Against Mandatory Minimums
The Pew Center on the States

Improving Community Corrections Systems to Reduce Prison Populations

Once prisoners are on probation or parole, improvements in community corrections systems are also promising ways in which to relieve some of the burden of prison budgets:

  • Virginia assesses felony theft, fraud, and drug offenders who would otherwise be sentenced to prison under the state's sentencing guidelines, and sends those deemed low-risk into community corrections. 
  • Georgia has implemented a program called Probation Options Management that allows probation officers to impose administrative sanctions themselves, instead of going through the time-consuming, expensive court system. 
  • Early studies of Hawaii's Opportunity Probation with Enforcement (HOPE) show that participants were less than half as likely to test positive for drugs, while arrest rates were three times lower.  
  • After Kansas implemented graduated sanctions and other improvements to its community corrections, the state cut parole revocations by half in two years and cut the percentage of parolees committing new crimes by a large number as well. Prison admissions of parolees for rule violations and new crimes, as well as parole absconding rates, are at or near all-time lows.
  • Arizona passed SB 1476 in 2008, which created performance incentives for both offenders and the county-based probation supervision system.  When offenders abide by the rules of their parole, they can get up to 20 days taken off the probationary period.  

The Pew Center on the States, One in 31: The Long Reach of American Corrections

Justice Reinvestment to Reduce Recidivism Rates

Finally, states can also go one step further and implement basic reforms to ensure a common-sense criminal justice system that will address recidivism rates and other barriers to a productive, crime-free life.  Justice reinvestment, in which savings are directed into the communities where the largest proportion of offenders will be returning after prison, is a smart way to increase public safety while also reducing spending on corrections.

Many states are enacting a myriad of these strategies to great success:

  •  Michigan has reduced its prison population by about 8% between March 2007 and November 2009 by adopting the Michigan Prisoner ReEntry Initiative (MPRI), which better connects prison system efforts for re-entry into society with locally developed re-entry support programs.  The drop in Michigan’s prison population has allowed the state — which faces a budget gap of $1.4 billion — to close eight prison facilities for a projected savings of $120 million.
  • With nearly unanimous support in the legislature, Connecticut enacted laws that streamline the parole process for low-risk offenders, address the high rate of probation violations, and develop a strategy to reduce recidivism.  After investing $13 million of the $30 million saved in community-based pilot projects, Connecticut saw its probation violations drop in half over a two-year period.
  • Faced with a projected increase in the prison population of 22% that would cost nearly $500 million over ten years, Kansas will instead save $80.2 million over five years after approving sensible criminal justice legislation.
  • A 2008 Rhode Island law allows inmates serving more than a month (except sex offenders and those serving life sentences) to earn up to ten days off their sentence for each month of good behavior, plus five more for joining a treatment program.  Prisoners serving three to six months saw a 15% reduction in the average stay, while those serving six to nine months and five to seven years saw a decrease in the length of stay by 10%.
  • After enacting a criminal justice package in 2007 that expanded treatment and diversion programs as well as enhanced community-based parole and probation policies, Texas has empty prison beds — about 2,000 of them — for the first time in years.  With a prison system roughly the size of the entire federal prison system, the state had incarcerated 5,500 repeat DWI offenders, over 50,000 drug offenders who were mainly non-violent or first-time offenders, and large numbers of mentally ill offenders prior to reform.  Their new strategy resulted in immediate savings of $210.5 million for FY 2008 and 2009.
  •  Property and drug offenders accounted for over half of the increase in the felony prison population in Vermont between 2000 and 2006.  A recently enacted law establishes assessment processes prior to sentencing to determine who would be better served by treatment programs and expanded transitional housing and job training programs, which will save Vermont $54 million between FY 2009 and FY 2018.

Arizona, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin are all working with the Council of State Governments to develop smart justice reinvestment strategies.

Justice Reinvestment, a project of the Council of State Governments Justice Center


Instead of cutting vital social services, states should instead look to reforming prison sentencing laws that are both unsustainable and ineffective. Many states are already saving millions of dollars by implementing much-needed reforms, realizing that both budgets and public safety can benefit from alternatives to incarceration.