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Corrections Cost Correction

The high cost of incarceration is spurring new thinking around every aspect of prison policy.

Man in jail looking out window
Photo: Luigi Caterino/Flickr CC
Luigi Caterino/Flickr CC
The United States today is arguably the most incarcerated society in human history. Some 3.2 percent of the adult population is in the correction system -- either incarcerated or on probation, parole or some other form of supervision, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

The cost of operating prisons is one of the fastest growing areas in state budgets. Since 1990, state corrections costs have increased about 7.5 percent a year, according to the National Governors Association. In 1972, state inmate populations were about 175,000. Today, they stand at an astounding 1.4 million.

As the fiscal squeeze intensifies, states have begun looking for ways to trim corrections expenses. The biggest cost driver in a prison is labor. Prison guards are expensive, so any steps that reduce the inmate population can save on personnel costs. Even if you can't close an entire facility, being able to close a cell block can represent significant cost savings.

According to the Pew Center for the States, the state inmate population declined for the first time since 1972, if only by a small amount. But some states saw big drops. Between 2009 to 2010, California, Maryland, Michigan, Mississippi, New York and Texas all saw their prison population drop by more than 1,000 inmates.

What is driving this decline? States are taking a hard look at a variety of strategies for driving down inmate populations, hopefully without sacrificing public safety.

For example, California has sought to reduce the number of low-risk parolees being returned to prison for technical violations of their parole by using intermediate sanctions rather than a costly return to prison. California has trimmedits overpopulated prisons by several thousand. The Reason Foundation released a report earlier this year suggesting that public-private partnerships could be used to cost-effectively address the Golden State's prison overcrowding problem.

Many states are adopting improved probation programs based on Hawaii's Opportunity Probation with Enforcement (HOPE) program. Launched in 2004, HOPE reformed the rainbow state's policy so that probation violations resulted in immediate but small consequences, such as a two day stint in jail. "Before the reform, offenders had to commit many infractions before facing consequences," according to the National Governors Association Best Practices Center, "but the consequences were expensive and often disproportionate to the infraction."

New technologies also present opportunities to use alternatives to incarceration, particularly for low-risk offenders. These alternative forms of supervision are usually a small fraction of the cost of incarceration. The use of Global Positioning System (GPS) monitors, rapid-result drug tests and ATM-like reporting kiosks offer authorities ways to monitor offenders without the high cost of locking them up. These new capabilities are giving judges and prosecutors confidence they can protect public safety with sanctions other than a costly prison stay.

Not all the probation news is happy. In Massachusetts, the state's probation department is in the middle of a massive patronage scandal. Some officials may find themselves personally adding to the Bay State's prison population.

In 2007, Texas was projecting a growth in its already crowded prison system, but instead of expanding prison capacity sought to boost alternative programs for low-risk offenders, especially substance abusers. "Rather than spend nearly $2 billion on new prison construction and operations to accommodate this growth, policymakers reinvested a fraction of this amount -- $241 million -- in a network of residential and community-based treatment and diversion programs," according to the Pew report.

Texas is also taking steps to improve reentry for departing inmates to reduce recidivism. According to a report from the VERA Institute of Justice, "Legislation in 2009 (HB 1711) requires the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to establish a comprehensive reentry plan for people leaving correctional facilities. The goal is to reduce recidivism and ensure the successful reentry and reintegration of inmates into the community."

Michigan was hard hit by the economic downturn. In response, since 2007 Michigan has reduced its inmate population by more than 10 percent. "This reduction has come about largely by reducing the number of inmates who serve more than 100% of their minimum sentence, decreasing parole revocation rates, and enhanced reentry planning and supervision through the Michigan Prisoner Reentry Initiative," according to the Pew report.

The high cost of incarceration is spurring new thinking around every aspect of prison policy. For example, right now roughly one-fourth of all inmates are nonviolent drug offenders. In 2009, Massachusetts decriminalized the possession of small quantities of marijuana, and more states are mulling similar changes.

For new governors facing a rising tide of red ink, corrections may offer an area where innovation can provide better, faster and cheaper ways of keeping offenders in check. A variety of strategies offer possibilities to save money without sacrificing public safety.

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