Facing Rising Corrections Costs, States Are Course Correcting

Capitol Ideas

By Katy Albis

A swift look at any state budget will reveal that corrections costs represent a significant portion of expenditures. In 2016, states spent a total of more than $57 billion on corrections, which encompasses the operation of prisons, probation and parole systems, alternatives to incarceration, and, depending on the state, juvenile justice programs.

State budgets have been saddled with rising corrections costs for decades due to growing prison populations, which are the result of sentencing practices and high recidivism rates, among other drivers. Even states that have recently seen declines in their correctional populations haven’t necessarily seen a decline in expenditures due to spending needs such as staffing and prison health care costs, according to a recent analysis by the Vera Institute of Justice.

Presented with these overwhelming fiscal challenges, state leaders recognize an urgent need to improve public safety while spending smarter and focusing resources on proven practices. Since 2010, more than 30 states have taken a justice reinvestment approach to use their criminal justice data to design and implement innovative, data-driven, and comprehensive approaches to shift resources toward more cost-effective public safety strategies.

To create a better understanding of recent crime and criminal justice population trends both nationally and at the state level, The Council of State Governments Justice Center hosted the 50-State Summit on Public Safety in November 2017 in partnership with the Association of State Correctional Administrators, or ASCA. The summit came at a time when public safety officials and crime data are telling a complex story. While property crime rates have fallen significantly in almost every state, and the overall violent crime rate remains lower than it was a decade ago, it is no longer universally declining. In fact, FBI crime data also shows that violent crime increased overall in 18 states and in many individual communities across the country between 2006 and 2016. Further, the opioid epidemic has become a national crisis, and law enforcement leaders describe engaging with more people who have serious mental illnesses than ever before.

Teams of corrections and behavioral health professionals from every state attended the summit and left with information that will help them develop clear strategies for reducing crime and recidivism, improving outcomes for people who have mental health and addictive disorders, and directing resources toward policies and practices that work.

At the summit, Bryan Collier, executive director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, described how, starting in 2007, his state helped change its trajectory of prison population growth with deliberate spending choices.

“Our legislative leadership … invested over $200 million in treatment and diversion options,” Collier said. “And a key piece there was it wasn’t just throwing paint on the wall—it was actually investing in the programs that had track records already established. So they expanded those programs and put those programs in place where they weren’t.”

  • Alabama

    After years of addressing problems in the criminal justice system through policy and practice changes, other states are beginning to see payoffs as well. In 2015, Alabama passed justice reinvestment legislation to tackle prison overcrowding, high supervision caseloads, and a dearth of treatment in the community. Since that time, the state’s prison population has decreased by 15 percent, and more than 100 new probation and parole officers have been hired to reduce the number of people supervised by each officer. State leaders in Alabama are looking at a 16-percent decrease in the prison population and up to $380 million in averted costs and savings by 2021, according to recent projections by the CSG Justice Center.

  • Idaho

    In 2012, Idaho had a higher-than-average recidivism rate and one of the fastest-growing prison populations in the nation. In response, state policymakers from across the political spectrum passed the Justice Reinvestment Act in 2014 to strengthen supervision practices, revamp parole decision-making, and assess the impact of recidivism-reduction efforts. As of early 2018, Idaho has seen promising results, according to its annual justice reinvestment impact report. The state has averted more than $21 million in potential costs—there are now about 430 fewer people in prison than originally projected. In turn, the state has invested an additional $12 million in addiction treatment and services for people in the corrections system and related training for staff.

  • Georgia

    For the past six years, Georgia has used a justice reinvestment approach to avert prison growth, expand accountability courts, improve re-entry, and strengthen the probation system. The state saw a 6 percent reduction in its prison population between 2012 and 2015. Georgia lawmakers passed additional legislation in 2017 that is expected to reduce the projected felony probation population and allow the state to avert more than $7 million in spending that would have been required to hire additional probation officers.

    “These reforms have resulted in policies that will ensure that resources are concentrated on people on probation who are at the highest risk of reoffending and that we employ strategies shown to improve public safety outcomes for people on community supervision,” said Justice Michael P. Boggs of the Georgia Supreme Court in a report issued last year titled Georgia’s Justice Reinvestment Approach.

  • North Carolina

    North Carolina’s prison population in 2010 was projected to grow by 10 percent over the next decade, so in 2011, lawmakers passed comprehensive legislation that focuses supervision and treatment resources on people who are at the highest risk of reoffending and have the greatest need for treatment. As a result, probation revocations, admissions to prison, and the state’s total prison population have all dropped significantly, allowing the state to close 11 small prisons. Due to this legislation, North Carolina averted the cost of building more prisons and saved about $277 million between 2012 and 2016, $48 million of which they reinvested in hiring probation officers and parole commission members, for a net savings of $229 million.

  • Missouri

    And just over the past year, Missouri has also undertaken a justice reinvestment initiative to address recent upticks in violent crime, insufficient behavioral health treatment resources for people on community supervision, a growing prison population, and high recidivism. State lawmakers introduced legislation in early 2018 to improve the functioning of the criminal justice system. If the bill passes, the state will begin investing in expanding community-based treatment options, among other measures.

Based on what states have seen thus far in their efforts to improve their criminal justice systems, it’s evident that being smarter about corrections spending requires looking beyond prison populations alone. For example, while the community supervision population accounts for a small percentage of arrests overall, people on probation account for two to three times as many new felony arrests as those on parole. Scaling up statewide efforts to break the cycle of reoffending among people on probation could therefore be more cost effective and have far greater public safety benefits than focusing only on people released from prison.

State leaders must continue to use data-driven policy options to reduce crime and recidivism, avert growth in prison populations, and use limited resources on proven practices.

“By breaking down silos, really talking to one another, and figuring out how we can … come together to repurpose and redirect existing resources can go a long way to solving this problem,” said Valerie Arkoosh, chair of the Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, Board of Commissioners at the 50-State Summit on Public Safety. In 2018, the CSG Justice Center will release a web-based 50-State Report on Public Safety. The report will be available at 50statespublicsafety.us.