E-Bulletin: Sentencing and Corrections Policy Updates


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Significant Sentencing and Corrections Laws in 2013

New laws focus on community supervision, release and reentry, and justice reinvestment

In 2013, 46 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico enacted 305 significant sentencing and corrections laws. The laws deal with criminal penalties and sentencing, diversion programs, community-based supervision, prison release, offender reentry, prison administration and corrections budgets and oversight.

Summaries of the laws are available on NCSL’s searchable sentencing and corrections enactment database.

Nearly 100 laws in 2013 addressed supervision of probationers and parolees. Laws in a dozen states dealt with the use of community-based sanctions for probation and parole violations. There were 14 new laws requiring the use of risk, needs or substance abuse assessments to guide supervision decisions. Other laws created or expanded the use of community-based substance abuse treatment and specialty court programs.

Laws in 36 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico focused on release and reentry. They adjusted the amount of earned-time or good-time credits for which inmates are eligible, amended parole eligibility and required a period of post-prison supervision for all inmates. Nine states passed laws to increase employment opportunities for offenders upon release.

Nearly every state dealt with matters of prison administration. Sixteen states and Puerto Rico passed laws dealing with inmate health care. Six of those—Arkansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Nevada, North Carolina and Texas­—were allowing state or local corrections departments to seek federal Medicaid funds for certain inmate health care services. Other laws regulated correctional industry programs, inmate transportation, inmate savings accounts and prison contraband.

At least 17 states enacted legislation this year as part of justice reinvestment efforts. Three states­—Idaho, Michigan and Mississippi—established work groups to study and develop policy recommendations. Four states—Kansas, Oregon, South Dakota and West Virginia—adopted major reforms. Laws in Kansas, Georgia and Louisiana built on actions taken in previous years. Also, Arkansas, New Hampshire, North Carolina and Oklahoma amended policies adopted in their initial reforms. Additionally, five states—Arkansas, Hawaii, Missouri, North Carolina, and Ohio—appropriated funds to support previous related policy changes. Vermont instructed an interim committee to make budget recommendations for 2014. 

New:  Justice Reinvestment Resource Map

The 50-state map provides summaries and resources for justice reinvestment legislation

Since 2007, more than 20 states have used a “justice reinvestment” process to curb corrections costs, reduce offender recidivism and maintain public safety. NCSL’s new resource map provides access to comprehensive information on state justice reinvestment initiatives. Resources include summaries of legislation, state data and reports, and information on technical assistance providers. Visit the new map.

Fiscal Front

Managing Corrections Costs

A new NCSL report examines state corrections budgets and spending

Lawmakers’ policy and fiscal responsibilities include making decisions about how best to provide for public safety and, at the same time, manage corrections costs. The new NCSL report Managing Corrections Costs details how states are managing corrections costs and enacting policy changes that make more effective use of corrections dollars.

Highlights from the report include:

Budget Trends: Forty states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico budgeted more for corrections in FY 2014 than in FY 2013; nine states budgeted less and New Jersey remains unchanged. Corrections budgets have represented about 5 to 6 percent of state general funds over the last 15 years, and are projected to be 5.3 percent in FY 2014.

Sentencing and Corrections Policies: Managing prison populations is key to managing costs. Some of the largest and potentially most sustainable reductions have resulted from changes to sentencing and corrections policies.

Prison Admissions: States have decreased the number of offenders who enter prison by expanding community-based supervision and treatment and creating alternatives to incarceration for probation and parole rule violations. In New York, the number of drug offenders entering prison has declined by 40 percent since 2009. South Carolina saved $4.2 million in one year from a 20 percent decline in prison revocations.

Length of Stay and Reentry: States have trimmed lengths of stay in prison by accelerating the release date of certain inmates who participate in prison programming and parole rates have risen with increased attention to reentry and information for parole boards. An earned time program in Pennsylvania saved the state $37 million over three years. In Texas, improved parole supervision, expansion of community- and prison-based treatment and a revalidated parole risk assessment tool led to a 7 percent increase in parole approval rates.

Operational Costs: Costs of operating prison facilities represent the largest share of corrections budgets and states have taken steps to improve the cost efficiency of prisons.

Facility Consolidations, Closures and Repurposing: Since 2011, 17 states have closed or consolidated prisons, which can result in significant savings. Pennsylvania will save an estimated $35 million per year by closing two older prisons and opening a newer one. Some states are repurposing closed facilities, providing new opportunities for local communities. Colorado recently repurposed a closed prison to provide transitional housing and support services to people who are homeless and required that a portion of the new employees be former correctional employees. 

Inmate Health Care: States have trimmed prison spending by making changes to inmate health care. Iowa saved $1.2 million by moving to a centralized pharmacy system. Use of telemedicine for inmate care saved Texas $780 million over a decade. Seeking federal Medicaid funds for certain inmate health care services was estimated to save California nearly $30 million in FY 2012-13.

Prison Management: Other efficiency measures taken in recent years include changes to food service or utility contracts, investments in new technology, and video conferencing to reduce inmate transportation costs.

State-Local Supervision and Funding: In 2011, local governments spent more than $26 billion to detain and supervise criminal offenders. In recent years, California and North Carolina have realigned state-local responsibility for housing and supervising offenders. Some states have reduced jail backlogs, reducing the burden on localities from housing state inmates. Eight states have adopted “performance incentive funding” mechanisms that reimburse local jurisdictions for successfully supervising some offenders in the community.

Federal Leadership and Support: State efforts have been supported by federal initiatives, including those by the federal Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA). A public-private partnership of BJA and The Pew Charitable Trusts leads national efforts in justice reinvestment. Also, the federal Second Chance Act has provided grants for innovative and evidence-based reentry programs since 2008.

This report was supported by a grant to NCSL from the Bureau of Justice Assistance in the U.S. Department of Justice. Read the full report.

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Issue In focus

Falling Crime Rates

Experts explain the drop in crime rates

The Federal Bureau of Investigations’ Uniform Crime Reporting Program tracks the number of violent and property crimes reported to law enforcement and compiles this information in an annual report. The 2012 report on crime in the United States indicates that while violent crime increased 0.7 percent from 2011 to 2012, it is down nearly 13 percent from 2008 and 12 percent from 2003. Property crime continues to decrease, down 14 percent over the past 10 years.

Crime rates began to rise in the 1960s and peaked in the mid-1980s. Despite predictions that crime would continue to rise, crime dropped through the 1990s and leveled off in the early 2000s. According to Dr. Alfred Blumstein and Dr. Richard Rosenfeld, in 2000 the crime rate was at its lowest since the 1960s.

There have been a variety of explanations for the drop in crime offered by a wide range of individuals, including economists, criminologists, and law professors. Economist  Dr. Steven D. Levitt, argued in “Understanding Why Crime Fell in the 1990s: Four Factors that Explain the Decline and Six that Do Not" factors he feels account for the decline. Blumstein and Rosenfeld, both criminologists, have concluded the effects of demographics, including age and racial composition, in addition to the decline in the prevalence of crack cocaine and the growing prison population are significant factors. Franklin Zimring, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, explored the crime drop in New York City from 1990 to 2009. He argues in
How New York Beat Crime” that the decline was likely the result “of increased incarceration, higher prosperity, aging population and mysterious cyclical influences.” A number of other explanations have been offered and the drop in crime continues to be studied today.

The National Academy of Sciences has organized a project, funded by the federal National Institute of Justice, which seeks to provide a “broad and comprehensive look at changes over time in crime, and some of the factors connected with those changes.” There are 16 individuals working on the project, including 12 academics, a former police chief, a district attorney, a state health officer and a Florida Circuit judge. The project explores a number of issues related to the crime drop, including the “lead hypothesis,” a theory that the removal of lead from paint and gasoline resulted in crime declines. For additional information and project resources, visit the project website

Each year, the Bureau of Justice Statistics releases the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS). This survey is the result of direct contact with households to determine rates of victimization; providing different information than the UCR which only includes crimes brought to the attention of law enforcement. The
2012 NCVS was released in October 2013.

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On a Related note

In the Nation's Capitol

The FY 2014 federal spending bill was signed into law in late January.  Criminal justice highlights include:

  • Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI):  $27.5 million ($21.6 million increase from FY2013). The substantial increase will provide funding for new states participating in JRI and will enhance implementation efforts already in participating states. Read about justice reinvestment.
  • Second Chance Act (SCA):  $67.7 million ($500,000 increase from FY2013). SCA provides grants to state, local and tribal governments and community-based organizations to establish innovative and evidence-based reentry programs.
  • Related pending legislation: Second Chance Reauthorization Act of 2013 (S. 1690, H.R. 3465)
  • Edward Byrne Justice Assistance Grants (Byrne JAG):  $344 million ($8 million decrease from FY2013). Byrne JAG funds are provided to states and localities to test emerging and evidence-based approaches to the public safety challenges in their jurisdictions.
  • Mentally Ill Offender Treatment and Crime Reduction Act (MIOTCRA):  $8.2 million ($600,000 decrease from FY2013). MIOTRCA supports collaboration between criminal justice and mental health agencies.
  • Related pending legislation: Mentally Ill Offender Treatment and Crime Reduction Act of 2013 (S. 162/H.R. 401). 

Recent Reports

  • Maryland’s interim Special Joint Commission on Public Safety and Security in State and Local Correctional Facilities released a final report on budget and policy recommendations  to improve the safety and security of state and local correctional facilities.
  • Washington’s Institute for Public Policy recently released the following reports:
    • Review of offender risk assessments used in the state (February 2014)
    • Inventory of evidence-based and research-based corrections programs (December 2013)
    • Cost-benefit analysis of prison, police and program options (November 2013)
  • Four state chief justices share lessons of sentencing and corrections reform in the Q&A Judging for Public Safety by the Public Safety Performance Project of The Pew Charitable Trusts.
  • Since 2000, at least 29 states have taken steps to ease mandatory sentences. A new report by the Vera Institute of Justice explores states that have reconsidered mandatory sentences.

Vera also released "Advancing the Quality of Cost-Benefit Analysis for Justice Programs," a white paper for anyone who conducts, plans to conduct, or wants to learn how to conduct a cost benefit analysis of a justice-related policy or program

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