A Data-Driven Approach to Reducing Prison Spending:  NCSL Legislative Summit, Issue Forum


Posted October 5, 2010

States are heading into the third consecutive fiscal year of declining revenues and large budget gaps and face corrections spending that accounts for about 6 percent of state general fund budgets. Lawmakers in many states have made it a priority to control prison populations and subsequent costs. Today, states increasingly have access to tools to help identify and analyze causes of prison growth. As legislators weigh various sentencing and corrections policy options, they can use that information to allocate scarce resources to programs and policies that promote public safety and reduce recidivism.

The issue forum, “A Data-Driven Approach to Reducing Prison Spending” at NCSL’s Legislative Summit in July 2010 focused on data-driven strategies that states are using to create sentencing and corrections policies that decrease recidivism, protect public safety and reduce prison spending. The complete session can be viewed on NCSL’s website; a brief summary of panelist presentations are below.

Gary Dennis, a senior policy advisor for corrections in the Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA), discussed BJA’s involvement with justice reinvestment work that is underway in states. BJA, in partnership with the Pew Charitable Trusts, provides technical assistance to states and local governments in the form of data analysis and policy development to identify causes of prison growth and subsequent costs. Dr. Dennis explained that states have successfully adopted policies that are safely reducing prison populations and achieving savings due to lower prison populations. As a result states are able to further enhance savings by investing in criminal justice programs to help reduce recidivisms. Dr. Dennis concluded his presentation by noting that, due to the success of this initiative, a bill currently is before Congress that would not only continue to support state data analysis and policy development work, but also would provide funds for implementing  specific programs.   

Tina Chiu, director of technical assistance at the Vera Institute of Justice, discussed the importance of using cost-benefit analysis in policymaking.  Ms. Chiu highlighted Vera’s Cost-Benefit Analysis Unit, supported by the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA). It was created to bridge the gap between research and policy by providing policymakers with clear, accessible information about the economic pros and cons associated with criminal and juvenile justice policies. Ms. Chiu broke down the five steps of cost-benefit analysis and discussed how lawmakers can begin to use the results to inform policy decisions.

Representative Jerry Madden of Texas highlighted the success of the Justice Reinvestment initiative in Texas, emphasizing the importance of bipartisan and interbranch collaboration. Representative Madden explained how—through data analysis and adoption of a package of laws in 2007—Texas was able to reduce the projected prison population of 17,000 additional inmates to almost no increase in inmate population, without a rise in crime rates.  

Representative John Tilley of Kentucky discussed how the current sentiment of state and local officials and the public indicated readiness for changes to the state’s correctional system, in contrast to the previous 30 years. Representative Tilley noted that Kentucky is building on that sentiment with a bipartisan, multi-branch committee that will review and analyze data and prepare recommendations for the 2011 legislative session. Representative Tilley concluded with some specific ideas for change that Kentucky will address in the coming year.