About 5% of states’ general fund budgets go to criminal justice—just over $45 billion in fiscal year 2019—so many lawmakers are determined to make every dollar count.
But that’s not as easy as it might sound.
“The challenge for legislators is to reduce the use of high-cost, low-return policies and shift the savings into programs that have been shown to reduce crime,” says Jake Horowitz, director of The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Public Safety Performance Project.
Lawmakers have a variety of policy options at their disposal, but what actually works? Programs in Louisiana, Michigan, Oregon and Missouri provide some answers.
Louisiana: Reducing Prison Admissions
Incarcerating people eats up a big chunk of any state’s criminal justice budget. While a variety of policy levers could be used to reduce prison populations, “the fear is that if we reduce populations to address budget considerations, we’ll have more crime,” Horowitz says. “People who study crime know it’s more complex than that.”
Over the five-year period from 2010 to 2015, for example, the country’s imprisonment rate fell 8.4%, while the combined violent and property crime rate declined 14.6%, according to U.S. Justice Department statistics.
Smart on crime beats tough on crime—all day. —Louisiana Rep. Joseph Marino
The crime rate doesn’t drive a state’s prison population—policy choices do, Horowitz says. For decades, Louisiana recorded the nation’s highest imprisonment rate per capita, even though it had a nearly identical crime rate to its neighbors. Once the Louisiana Legislature created the Justice Reinvestment Task Force, researchers discovered that Louisiana was sending people to prison for nonviolent crimes at nearly three times the rate of states such as South Carolina and Florida, says Terry Schuster, manager at Pew’s Public Safety Performance Project.
“We were leading the nation with the highest incarceration rate, the majority of which were incarcerated for nonviolent offenses,” Louisiana Rep. Joseph Marino (I) says.
Policy reforms, then, centered on reducing sentences for nonviolent crimes and crafting early release options for individuals with nonviolent convictions. In 2017, state lawmakers passed 10 bills projected to reduce Louisiana’s prison and community supervision populations by 10% and 12%, respectively, over the next 10 years, Horowitz says. New measures steer people convicted of less serious crimes away from prison. In addition to altering drug sentencing rules and strengthening incarceration alternatives, legislators changed “good time” rules—which allow incarcerated people to earn time off their sentences—and parole policies to reduce prison terms for those who can be safely supervised in the community.
Lawmakers also created a statutory obligation for Louisiana to reinvest 70% of the money saved into services, including victim restitution programs. “Within the prisons, we shifted resources to education, job skills, reentry programs and substance abuse treatment to help returning citizens make successful transitions,” Marino says. “We expect to continue to see lower numbers in our prison population and improved public safety as a result of lower recidivism rates.”
Under the legislation, the state’s total prison and community supervision populations continue to decline, and the initial savings have exceeded projections, reaching nearly $40 million in 2018, 2019 and 2020 combined.
Michigan: Shortening Jail Stays
“Jails are expensive,” Pew’s Schuster says, and while cities and counties bear their financial burden, state-level policies are what determine their cost. In Michigan, jail populations tripled over a relatively short period. By 2018, taxpayers were spending $500 million on county-level jail services, and there was “zero understanding about who was in jail, why, and for how long,” Schuster says.
The top reason for arrests in Michigan was failure to appear in court, and the third most common reason people went to jail was driving on a suspended license. Lots of people were going to jail for low-level crimes. —Terry Schuster, manager, The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Public Safety Performance Project
Pew analysts reviewed a decade’s worth of statewide arrest and court data, including detailed figures from a broad sample of 20 Michigan jails. “The top reason for arrests in Michigan was failure to appear in court, and the third most common reason people went to jail was driving on a suspended license,” Schuster says. “Lots of people were going to jail for low-level crimes.”
Last session, Michigan lawmakers introduced and passed 20 bills designed to impact county jails, including expanding police discretion and putting a hard cap on jail stays for technical violations of probation. They also built into the law a presumption that jail shouldn’t be the go-to punishment: Community service, for example, could be used for traffic violations and other low-level crimes.
Oregon: Shoring Up Short-Term Transitional Leave
“In 2013, the Oregon Legislature was faced with a choice: Build a new men’s prison or choose a different road,” says Ken Sanchagrin, executive director of the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission. Lawmakers opted for the latter, creating Oregon’s Justice Reinvestment Program, which included a reimagining of the state’s short-term transitional leave policies.
Short-term transitional leave improves the transitional planning and reentry process for people released from incarceration as they rejoin society. The program incentivizes good behavior and the completion of programming while in custody, and it requires the development of release plans designed to ease the transition from custody back into society.
[Prison bed savings] currently stand at nearly 750,000 prison bed days saved. On the whole, no change in recent policy reforms has had a bigger positive impact as far as prison savings as short-term transitional leave. —Ken Sanchagrin, executive director, Oregon Criminal Justice Commission
To reduce the state’s overall prison population, changes in 2013 instructed the Oregon Department of Corrections to track transitional leave eligibility, inform incarcerated people of the program as their release date approached, and assist them in meeting program requirements. Additionally, the length of short-term transitional leave tripled to 90 days. That turned into 120 days in 2017, with data showing that 89% of participants have successfully completed the program.
“Participants are less likely to reenter the system, and data show they have more successful three-year recidivism outcomes compared to others on post-prison supervision,” Sanchagrin says. “We also maintain a dashboard that tracks program success and prison bed savings, which currently stands at nearly 750,000 prison bed days saved since December 2013. On the whole, no change in recent policy reforms has had a bigger positive impact as far as prison savings as short-term transitional leave.”
Missouri: Reducing Revocations of Community Supervision
Nearly 1 in 4 people in jail are there for violations of community supervision, according to research from the Council of State Governments Justice Center. With more than 4 million adults on probation and parole, Horowitz says, “revocations for violating the rules of supervision, or committing a new crime while on parole, account for 40% of all jail stays.”
Good time credits are frequently used in prisons to incentivize good behavior and are increasingly being used for community supervision. And according to a 2013 report from the American Probation and Parole Association, the data shows that the most effective correctional interventions involve positive reinforcements that outnumber sanctions or punishments.
An analysis by The Pew Charitable Trusts of Missouri’s policy found that in the first three years of implementation, more than 36,000 people under supervision reduced their terms by an average of 14 months. As a result, the state’s supervised population fell by 18%.
In 2012, Missouri adopted a good time provision for people on probation and parole, making it one of the first states to implement a substantial “earned compliance” policy outside of prison. People on probation and parole can receive day-for-day credits, permitting eligible individuals to earn a set number of days off their sentences by completing drug treatment, behavioral health counseling or other programs. Compliance credits are automatically awarded, streamlining the discharge process.
“The impact has been huge,” Horowitz says. A Pew analysis of Missouri’s policy found that in the first three years of implementation, more than 36,000 people under supervision reduced their terms by an average of 14 months. As a result, the state’s supervised population fell by 18%. Over 90% of those who earned credits between 2012 and 2015 had been convicted of nonviolent offenses. “The law had no evident negative impact on public safety,” Horowitz says.
While Pew researchers haven’t been able to set a price on Missouri’s program, the nonprofit has valued a similar bill that was passed in Louisiana as saving an average of $17.6 million in annual corrections costs.
Initiatives That Work
Horowitz and Schuster argue that, based on Pew research, behavioral health services are more effective at protecting public safety than parole.
“When people have access to high quality behavioral health services, interactions with law enforcement go down and, in the long term, we see reductions in the number of people in the criminal justice system,” says Alison Lawrence, associate director of NCSL’s Criminal Justice Program.
Corrections research departments are another valuable resource. Lawmakers looking for effective ways to reduce their criminal justice budgets are finding that public safety and researched-backed corrections policy go hand in hand. Cutting a research department, Horowitz says, “You might save a fully loaded salary, but then you’re flying blind, and you don’t know what is driving your costs.”
As Marino puts it, “Smart on crime beats tough on crime—all day.”
Jamie Siebrase is a Denver-based freelancer.