Sustained Outrage

A primer in reducing prison populations

A new report by the The Sentencing Project offers four examples of states that have reduced their prison populations significantly over the last decade, even as the overall number of people in state prisons has grown nationally by 12 percent.

Between 1999 and 2009, New York and New Jersey have reduced their state inmates by 20 and 19 percent, respectively. Kansas has cut its prisoners by five percent in six years, while Michigan experienced a 12 percent drop between 2006 and 2009.

As I’ve noted before, the challenging economy has certainly forced cash-strapped states to look for ways to save money, and incarceration is very expensive. But the reductions highlighted by this report may reflect changing attitudes towards sentencing, authors Judith Greene and Marc Mauer note.

As states around the nation grapple with the effects of the fiscal crisis a major area of attention has been the cost of corrections. Over the past 25 years the four-fold rise in the prison population has caused corrections expenditures to escalate dramatically. These increased costs now compete directly with higher education and other vital services within a climate of declining state revenues.

Even prior to the onset of the latest fiscal crisis, though, legislators in many states had become increasingly interested in adopting evidence-based policies directed at producing more effective public safety outcomes. In contrast to the “get tough” climate that had dominated criminal justice policy development for many years, this new political environment has focused on issues such as diversion of people charged with lower-level drug offenses, developing graduated sanctions for people on probation and parole who break the rules, and enhancing reentry strategies.

Despite these developments, prison populations have continued to rise in the past decade, albeit not as dramatically as in the preceding decades. From 2000-2008 the number of people incarcerated in state prisons rose by 12 percent from 1,176,269 to 1,320,145, although with a broad variation around the nation. At the high end, six states expanded their prison populations by more than 40 percent – West Virginia (57 percent), Minnesota (51 percent), Arizona (49 percent), Kentucky (45 percent), Florida (44 percent), and Indiana (41 percent).

By the end of this period, growth in state prisons appeared to have largely stabilized. In 2008, the national total remained steady, and 20 states experienced a modest reduction in their populations that year.

While a growing trend towards stability may be emerging, this development needs to be assessed in context. Even if there should be a leveling of population growth, that would still leave prison populations at historic highs that are unprecedented in American history or that of any other democratic nation. The consequences of such a situation for fiscal spending, public safety prospects, and impact on communities is very troubling.

That’s right, folks, while the number of prisoners was shrinking in some states, West Virginia led the nation in growth of prisoner population. Does anyone really believe that there was a 57 percent jump in the number of crimes committed here over the last decade?

I’ve listed some of the successful methods in reducing the number of inmates listed in the report after the jump.

Sentencing Reforms
• New York: Scaled back the Rockefeller Drug Laws substantially to reduce the scope of mandatory sentences.
• Michigan: Reformed the “650 Lifer Law” that had previously imposed life sentences for 650 gram drug offenses, even for first-time offenders. Eliminated most mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses and incorporated sentencing provisions into the guidelines system, with enhanced judicial discretion. Restructured community corrections planning expectations to create incentives to target “straddle-cell” cases in sentencing guidelines for intermediate sanctions.
• Kansas: Amended state sentencing guidelines to divert people convicted of drug possession to mandatory treatment rather than prison, and eliminated sentencing enhancements for persons with prior convictions for drug possession.

Alternatives for “Prison Bound” People
• New York: Drug Treatment Alternative to Prison program established by the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office to divert prison-bound defendants into treatment programs helped to reduce use of incarceration, and was expanded to other prosecutor’s offices statewide. Statewide network of Alternatives to Incarceration programs utilized data to target prison-bound offenders for sentencing alternatives.
• New Jersey: Attorney General revised plea negotiation guidelines to permit “open pleas” in lower-level drug-free zone cases, giving judges discretion at sentencing. Expanded drug court model statewide, and encouraged judges to consider “open plea” cases for treatment.

Reducing Time Served In Prison
• New York: Implemented “merit time” credits and other incentives for participation in education and vocational training, treatment and other services to speed parole consideration.

Parole Release Rates
• New Jersey: Adopted risk assessment instruments to aid parole board in considering release issues, along with day reporting and electronic monitoring in community, resulting in increased rate of granting parole.
• Michigan: Use of data-driven policies to identify lower-risk cases for release, establishment of greater range of intermediate sanctions for rule violators, and designation of two “reentry prisons” to assist in planning for release.

Reducing Revocations
• New Jersey: Established Regional Assessment Centers to provide input to parole board in determining if parole violators should be allowed to continue on parole supervision.
• Michigan: Established the Michigan Prisoner Reentry Initiative to develop locally-based planning focusing on services in housing, employment, substance abuse, and other areas designed to increase prospects for successful reentry.
• Kansas: Justice Reinvestment strategy to provide services under community supervision to reduce revocations for rule violations. Risk Reduction Initiative provides funding to county-operated programs that emphasize neighborhood revitalization, substance abuse and mental health treatment,and housing services.