Issue in Focus: Studies Prompt Sentencing and Corrections Reforms and Reinvestments
States are using data-driven methods to identify corrections policies that are smart on crime and easier on taxpayers.
In 2011, states are getting smart on crime by enacting laws aimed at controlling corrections populations and costs while increasing the public safety. Behind these criminal justice reforms are bipartisan, multi-branch task forces and working groups that have studied state-specific criminal justice data and made recommendations to the legislature based on their findings. These task forces and working groups were at work in at least 23 states in 2011, scrutinizing sentencing, offender supervision and related corrections policies, as well as the fiscal impact of old and new criminal justice policies. To help states craft more successful and cost-effective approaches, NCSL formed the Sentencing and Corrections Policy work group in 2010. The 18-member, bipartisan work group has developed a framework for legislatures to use in creating sentencing and corrections policies that both manage state spending and protect the public. The group has complied its findings into a report, Principles of Effective State Sentencing and Corrections Policy. Below are four examples of state action in 2011.
Facing a prison population that had doubled over the course of 20 years, the Arkansas legislature created a bipartisan working group that analyzed sentencing and community supervision policies, consulted with community stakeholders. Its recommendations to the legislature in 2011 were aimed at reserving prison space for the most dangerous offenders and distinguishing between drug users and career criminals.
The resulting act, 2011 Ark. Acts, Act # 750, the Public Safety Improvement Act, increased felony theft thresholds; amended penalties for low-level drug crimes; required evidence-based practices for community supervision, including intermediate sanctions for technical violators; directed the parole board to create new policies and procedures that use evidence-based practices and risk assessments to improve reintegration success rates for parolees; authorized a pilot probation program modeled after the Hawaii Opportunity Probation and Enforcement (HOPE) program; and created incentive funding for supervision agencies that reduce commitments to the Department of Corrections. The bill also created data reporting requirements for both the Department of Corrections and the Department of Community Corrections to monitor the effectiveness of the changes.
The Public Safety Performance Project of the Pew Center on the States, which provided technical assistance to the Arkansas working group, estimates that the Public Safety Improvement Act will save Arkansas $875 million in prison construction and operating expenses through 2020.
Kentucky’s prison population was one of the fastest growing in the nation, increasing by 45 percent from 2000-2009. In response, the Kentucky General Assembly created the Task Force on the Penal Code and Controlled Substances Act during the 2010 legislative session and directed the task force to study and report on recommended changes to the state’s penal code and controlled substances act. For more information on the creation of the task force, see Representative John Tilley’s presentation at the 2010 NCSL Legislative Summit session, A Data-Driven Approach to Reducing Prison Spending.
The Task Force’s January 2011 report prompted 2011 Ky. Acts, Ch.2, the Public Safety and Offender Accountability Act, which made comprehensive changes to penal and controlled substances law and established mechanisms for tracking the progress of the new laws under the bill. The bill changes definitions and creates new thresholds for controlled substance offenses; incorporates risk and needs assessments and evidence-based practices at all stages of the criminal justice system, including presentence reports, pretrial release, corrections intake, probation and parole, mandatory reentry and post-incarceration supervision, and treatment programs; establishes graduated sanctions for technical probation and parole violators; creating incentive funding for pilot community corrections programs; and authorizes the Department of Corrections and local courts to establish a pilot probation program modeled after the Hawaii Opportunity Probation and Enforcement (HOPE) program.
Changes made by the bill are expected to save Kentucky taxpayers $422 million over 10 years, according to the fiscal note prepared by Kentucky Legislative Research Commission. Kentucky will reinvest more than half of those savings into a local corrections assistance fund; expansion of treatment programs, probation and parole services; and additional pretrial services. More information on the effects of the act is available in a report prepared by the Public Safety Performance Project of the Pew Center on the States, which offered technical assistance to the task force.
In 2010, the governor and other state leaders created an inter-branch working group to recommend policy options aimed at preventing a forecasted state prison growth of 10 percent by 2020, and to address gaps in community supervision policies and inefficient use of treatment resources.
The legislature used the working group’s recommended policy options to create 2011 N.C. Sess. Laws, Chap. 192, the Justice Reinvestment Act. The act requires post-release supervision for all felony offenders; authorizes administrative sanctions for technical violations; focuses supervision and treatment resources on offenders with the highest risks and needs; offers incentives allowing earlier release to community supervision for offenders who choose to participate in programming; and expands the felony drug diversion program.
The legislation is expected to save North Carolina $290 million in the next five years; the state will annually invest at least $4 million of the savings to expand community-based treatment programming for offenders on community supervision.
A bipartisan working group in Ohio analyzed the state’s prison system, which was 33 percent over capacity and growing in 2008, as well county probation policies. In response to these and other corrections issues, the group presented the General Assembly with a 13-point policy recommendation.
The working group’s policy recommendation was combined with several other policies to create one justice reinvestment initiative, Vol. 129, 2011 Ohio Laws, H. 86. The act requires first-time property and drug offenders to serve probation and participate in treatment; establishes statewide requirements for community corrections programs; gives priority placement in community corrections programming to those offenders most likely to benefit from them; and creates statewide standards for probation.
The laws, which avert forecasted prison growths, are expected to save $500 million in prison construction spending, and an additional $46 million in corrections spending by 2015 as current prison populations decline. The state plans to reinvest $20 million of the savings over four years to improve felony probation supervision through incentive funding to those agencies that reduce recidivism.
These and other state actions are part of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, a national initiative supported by the U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Assistance with the Pew Center on the States, which provides technical assistance and financial support to local governments that would like to engage in justice reinvestment. For more information about justice reinvestment work in the states, visit:
For more information about the specific policies and programs mentioned in this article, see NCSL’s Principles of Effective State Sentencing and Corrections Policy.