Crime Falls, But Not Everywhere

Pointer  Online Extra

June 2008

Questions for Adam Gelb, an online extra for "Crime Falls But Not Everywhere":

SL: The Pew report on 1-in-100 American adults behind bars report really struck a chord, attracting lots of attention and discussion. Are you surprised by the response?

Gelb: The reaction really has been tremendous, and I’d say that we have been both surprised and pleased. People who follow this issue have seen it coming for a long time, but the press and the public hadn’t.

The 1-in-100 milestone is striking people as very dramatic evidence that we have a serious problem. So many corrections professionals have told us that their friends never want to discuss prisons, but that they want to talk about 1-in-100: “Did you hear about this?  Is it true?  Really?  How did that happen?  How could that happen?”

That’s exactly the kind of discussion we were hoping to generate. It doesn’t mean that any particular state has too many people in prison, or has people behind bars who shouldn’t be there. It does mean that every state needs to take a hard look and ask whether they do, and whether all the money they’re spending on prisons is giving them a clear and convincing return for public safety. 

SL: The report included quite a lot of attention to discussing how rising corrections costs diminish state spending in other important areas—higher education, transportation and the like. Indeed, lawmakers have to look at any category of state spending as part of the whole. Do you see cost issues driving corrections and sentencing policy discussions at this time?

Gelb: No doubt cost is a significant motivator, but it’s far from the only one.

States don’t necessarily make explicit trade-offs each year between spending for corrections and higher education. But policy makers are seeing the trends and realizing that, over time, corrections has been squeezing out funds that they would rather  spend on other pressing public priorities like education and health care.

Still, my sense is that most lawmakers would be willing to boost prison budgets if they were seeing an adequate reduction in crime. But this is increasingly not the case.

Lawmakers are looking at places like New York and seeing that it’s possible to cut crime and prison populations at the same time. Serious crime in New York has dropped by more than half over the past 15 years and the prisons are holding 10,000 fewer inmates. It’s a powerful example of how a combination of strategies, both within and outside criminal justice, can be effective at producing public safety—and far less tough on taxpayers than prison cells, which cost an average of $65,000 to build and $24,000 a year to operate.

So it’s not just high costs and competing priorities. It’s a growing sense that there are better strategies than trying to build our way out with more prisons.

At the end of the day, everyone wants  serious, violent and chronic offenders off the streets, and some of them for a long, long time. The need to punish those types of offenses, both for the sake of retribution and to incapacitate dangerous offenders, accounts for some of the increased spending. But more and more lawmakers are looking under the hood and finding that there is some slice of the prison population who could be safely and cost-effectively supervised in a drug court or a day reporting center or some form of community corrections.

SL: You refer to two levers states have for slowing prison population and growth: reducing prison admissions and reducing length of stay. Remark on how states have successfully and safely handled each of those levers, as part of related reforms.

Gelb: That’s right—prison admissions and length of stay are the two factors that determine the size of a state’s prison population. There are broad social and economic forces that can influence the crime rate, but ultimately it’s how the state chooses to pull those two levers that determines the number of inmates.

States in every region of the country and with leadership from both political parties are pulling the levers. Some states, such as New Jersey, are expanding eligibility for community corrections programs to reduce admissions. Others like Kansas are aggressively targeting probation and parole violators by ensuring they are held accountable for breaking the rules without sending them back behind the walls. Mississippi just rolled back the percent of sentence that inmates are required to serve.

Texas acted last year on both fronts, expanding its network of community-based and residential treatment centers to divert substance-abusing offenders from prison and committing to increase its parole grant rate. Those measures are expected to save the state about $250 million over just the next couple of years, and enhance public safety by cutting recidivism. 

One of the best examples of comprehensive system reform is in North Carolina. In the early 1990s the state established sentencing guidelines that raised prison terms for violent and repeat offenders and diverted lower-level cases to county-level community programs. The state also provided funding for the counties to set up and run those programs, with adequate supervision and treatment components.

Since then, crime in North Carolina has fallen right in tandem with the national average, but officials there estimate the reformed system has saved over $2 billion in prison costs. It’s far from perfect, but it offers another strong illustration of what you can accomplish.

SL: The Public Safety Performance Project is working in many states on these issues. With prisons being, as you refer to in the report, the traditional approach to corrections, do you see the momentum shifting in states toward having more diverse corrections options and reduced reliance on prisons?

Gelb: I do, for a number of reasons. First, the momentum is shifting at the federal level.  President Bush just signed the Second Chance Act and the U.S. Sentencing Commission reduced crack cocaine sentences and made the change retroactive. These are clear signs that national leaders have concluded we can’t build our way out of the crime problem, that we have to figure out better ways to stop the revolving door.

Second, we know much better than we did 20 years ago how to change offender behavior. Community supervision agencies and treatment providers are adopting evidence-based practices, and they would do so more quickly if they had legislative encouragement.

Third, the general trend toward performance management in government is starting to catch up to criminal justice. Prisons have been largely exempt from cost-benefit analysis.  More prisoners meant more prisons. It was just that simple.

But now, just like education programs or infrastructure projects, prisons are starting to be put to the test. To be sure, many policy makers come at this issue by asking the question, “How do I demonstrate that I’m tough on crime.” But more and more it’s being reframed the way it should be: “How do I get taxpayers the best possible return on their investment in public safety?”

The answer to that question, in most states, will be a stronger mix of community punishments for low-level offenders, and greater emphasis on proven strategies that prevent crime.

 Crime Falls, But Not Everywhere June 2008 Article