Corrections Lessons From the States

As they search for ways to reduce incarceration and improve public safety, federal policymakers can look beyond the Beltway for inspiration.
April 28, 2015 AT 9:00 AM
By Susan K. Urahn  |  Contributor
Executive vice president and chief program officer for the Pew Charitable Trusts

The federal prison population has grown nearly 800 percent since 1980 as lawmakers created new criminal penalties, mandated longer sentences and abolished parole. During this period, federal inmates' average time served increased from 15.9 months to 40.1. Taxpayers now spend $6.7 billion each year on federal prisons, with corrections costs growing twice as fast as all other Justice Department spending. Yet a third of the inmates who leave federal prison under community supervision return to custody for violating the terms of their release. These sobering statistics have led policymakers in both political parties to seek less costly and better public safety outcomes.

While many in Washington are debating how to improve the federal correctional system, states -- in their traditional role as laboratories for innovation -- have moved from talk to action. Since 2007, more than half the states have made research-based policy changes to control prison growth, hold offenders accountable and protect public safety. Through the Justice Reinvestment Initiative -- a partnership of the Justice Department, the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Council of State Governments Justice Center and other organizations -- states are focusing prison space on serious and violent offenders while expanding alternatives to incarceration for those who can be supervised more effectively and efficiently in the community.

Justice reinvestment is notable for its geographic and political breadth as well as the diversity of policy options it encompasses. Georgia and Oregon revised mandatory minimum sentencing laws to give judges more flexibility when imposing penalties. Delaware and Mississippi expanded prison-release policies to allow inmates to earn credits for good behavior or participation in educational or substance abuse programs. South Dakota and West Virginia created or expanded drug courts to divert low-level offenders from prison into community-based programs. Although the specifics differ from state to state, all of these recent efforts focus states' limited corrections resources on serious offenders while improving community supervision and other interventions for those convicted of lower-level crimes.

These innovative policies have earned overwhelming bipartisan support. Last month, Utah became the latest justice reinvestment state to pass corrections legislation; only two lawmakers voted against converting all first- and second-time drug possession charges from felonies to misdemeanors. Nationally, justice reinvestment has received more than 5,700 "aye" votes in state legislatures, compared with fewer than 500 "no" votes. These bills also received strong support from each state's judicial and executive branches.

The results of these and other recent justice reforms are promising. After rising for decades, the total number of state prisoners has leveled off in recent years while crime continues its long-term decline. As illustrated in this Pew Charitable Trusts infographic, crime rates fell more in the 33 states that cut their imprisonment rates over the past five years than in the 17 states that increased imprisonment. The implications for taxpayers are equally encouraging. An independent analysis of 17 justice-reinvestment states by the Urban Institute found that they expect to avert as much as $4.6 billion in corrections spending in the years ahead.

As Congress moves to address the long-term growth of the federal prison system, lawmakers can look to Mississippi, Oregon, South Dakota, Delaware and other states for a blueprint of bipartisan corrections reform that makes communities safer while saving taxpayer dollars.