by The Editorial Board
The mandatory sentencing movement that swept the United States beginning in the 1970s drove the state prison population up from less than 200,000 to about 1.4 million today and made corrections the second-fastest-growing state expense after Medicaid. But bipartisan sentencing reforms in a growing number of states are starting to reverse that trend — causing the prison population to decline by about 3.8 percent since 2009.
Underlying the state reforms is a relatively new and more sophisticated way of using data about the offender — including criminal history, drug abuse and instances of antisocial behavior — to assess the likelihood of that individual’s committing a new crime. And by examining arrest, sentencing and probation data, the states can revise policies that might be driving people back into prison unnecessarily.
States have found that many inmates go back to prison not for committing new crimes but for technical violations, like missing appointments with parole officers or failing drug tests. With that knowledge, states have moved to less costly and more effective sanctions — a brief jail stay, community service or more frequent meetings with the parole officer — for such offenses.
Some states are also embracing what is known as the “justice reinvestment” approach, under which they channel significant sums of money into improved parole or probation services while beefing up the drug treatment and mental health services that many ex-offenders need to stay out of trouble.
Despite the merits of a risk-assessment approach, a report issued earlier this year by the Council of State Governments Justice Center said that many states are still flying blind, because they don’t have the resources to gather data. Moreover, the study noted, handling high-risk and low-risk offenders in the same way is a big mistake, because “low risk individuals have an increased likelihood of recidivism when they are oversupervised or receive treatment or services in the same programs as medium- and high-risk individuals.”
There are proven ways to move away from discredited, ruinously expensive corrections policies. More states need to adopt these approaches.