How Do You Cut Prison Populations And Costs? By Focusing On Parole And Probation

The Pew Center on the States, which has done a lot of groundbreaking research on criminal-justice policy, has a new report out showing that corrections represent the fastest-growing costs to state budgets second only to Medicaid. The prison population has grown by more than 700 percent since 1973, while costs over the last 20 years alone have grown more than 300 percent. According to Pew, about 40 percent of ex-offenders return to prison within three years -- cutting that rate by 10 percent would save $645 million.

Not all the money spent on incarceration was wasted, but the Pew study makes it clear that we're now beyond the point of diminishing returns. Even as the prison population has ballooned, the study states that only about a third of the drop in crime is attributable to incarceration, and notably, 19 of the states in the study that cut their prison populations also experienced a drop in crime. The recidivism rate alone doesn't always tell the whole story, since some policies can make it look like states have developed effective policies for preventing people from reoffending when they're really just incarcerating more people who are less likely to recidivate. 

There are two states in the survey that bear looking at as starkly contrasting examples. The first is Oregon, which has done an incredible job of reducing its recidivism rate through policies like graduated sanctions. Oregon cut its recidivism rate to 22.8 percent, an almost 32 percent drop according to Pew. How? Oregon focused on parole and probation, like the other smart states:

The change in the handling of offenders who violate terms of their supervision was striking. In the past, parole and probation violators filled more than a quarter of Oregon’s prison beds. Today violators are rarely reincarcerated. Instead, they face an array of graduated sanctions in the community, including a short jail stay as needed to hold violators accountable. Results of the Pew/ASCA survey confirmed this—only 5.9 percent of offenders released in 1999 and 3.3 percent of the 2004 cohort were returned to prison on technical violations.

Then you have California, which simply re-imprisons parolees for technical violations, which increases both its prison costs and its recidivism rate. Where graduated sanctions are tailored to the violation, California just locks people back up. Most of these people aren't committing actual crimes, mind you. Here's the chart from the report. The light blue are technical violations, the dark blue represents new crimes being committed:

California recidivism.png

Pew concludes that California alone could save $233 million in a year by cutting its recidivism rate by 10 percent -- corrections makes up about 11 percent of California's state budget. Gov. Jerry Brown recently signed a bill designed to help cut the states' prison population and therefore its cost to the state, so we'll see how that goes.

Again, it's easy to focus on prison costs. But the point here is that when ex-offenders don't recidivate, that means they're more likely to get jobs and be parents to their children. There is a serious negative cumulative impact created by ex-offenders being unable to find licit employment and lead productive lives, one that has a drastic effect on the poor communities in which their populations tend to be concentrated. So states have a public safety and fiscal interest in getting this right, but there's more at stake here than just money.

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