Over the past 31 years, state spending on corrections has skyrocketed nationally—from $12 billion in 1988 to $65.9 billion in 2020. This cost puts a serious strain on many states’ criminal justice systems, often placing concerns about the bottom line in competition with public safety.
Facts and Trends
- Despite mounting corrections spending, recidivism rates remain high. According to the most recent data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 36 percent of people released from state prisons were incarcerated for a new crime within 3 years of release and 45 percent were incarcerated within 5 years.
- A 10 percent cut in recidivism rates nationally would save states a combined $635 million in one year of averted prison construction costs.
- Policymakers often do not have information about which factors are driving crime, recidivism rates, and the growth of correctional populations. Most state policymakers make decisions about prison and public safety policies without comprehensive, independent analyses of their criminal justice data.
Despite these challenges, strategies tested in many states show there are effective ways to address the challenge of containing rising corrections costs while also increasing public safety.
Justice Reinvestment Works
Justice Reinvestment is a data-driven approach to improve public safety, reduce corrections and related criminal justice spending, and reinvest savings in strategies that can decrease crime and reduce recidivism.
Justice Reinvestment helps states identify the drivers of rising corrections costs and crime and develop state-specific solutions. By managing criminal justice populations more cost-effectively, states generate savings to reinvest in evidence-based strategies to increase public safety while holding people accountable. With help from technical assistance providers, states that adopt a Justice Reinvestment approach collect and analyze data on drivers of corrections costs and prison population growth, identify and implement changes to increase efficiencies, and measure both the fiscal and public safety impacts of those changes.
Assisted by the federal investment in the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, more than 35 states have used the Justice Reinvestment approach since 2010 to pursue policies to slow overall prison growth, and for some states, reduce the total prison population. Through Justice Reinvestment, cumulative averted costs and savings in these states exceed $3.2 billion, allowing states to invest hundreds of millions in effective supervision and treatment programs to make communities safer. It is projected that savings will grow to more than $4 billion as a result of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative.
How It All Began
With a prison population of 155,000 people in 2007, Texas state officials projected needing to build 17,000 additional prison beds at a cost of $2 billion by 2012. Texas legislative leaders rejected plans to fund additional prison construction and instead pursued a data-driven Justice Reinvestment approach.
In 2007, Texas implemented policies that increased substance addiction and mental health treatment capacity in the prison system and expanded probation and parole diversion options that ultimately saved more than $1.5 billion in construction costs and $340 million in annual averted operating costs. Texas has since closed eight prisons, has reduced recidivism, and crime rates are at historic lows. Texas’s success helped spur the creation of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative.
Justice Reinvestment in Action
In 2014, Alabama had the most crowded prison system in the nation (195 percent of capacity), and caseloads for probation and parole officers averaged close to 200 cases per officer. In 2015, state leaders enacted SB 67 to address these challenges by strengthening community-based supervision through the use of graduated sanctions for violations of probation and parole, diverting people convicted of the lowest-level drug and property offenses from prison to community corrections programs, and ensuring supervision for everyone upon release from prison. Alabama’s prison population fell 25 percent between 2015 and 2020. At a time when budgets were cut dramatically, the legislature appropriated $95.6 million between 2016 and 2019 to fund SB 67.
Between 2004 and 2015, Arkansas’s prison population grew 31 percent. As a result, prison facilities were at capacity, and a growing number of people sentenced to prison were being held in county jails awaiting transfer to prison. In 2017, Governor Asa Hutchinson signed the Criminal Justice Efficiency and Safety Act (Act 423). Act 423 strengthens probation and parole supervision practices, establishes a more effective and less costly approach for sanctioning supervision violations, creates crisis intervention training requirements for law enforcement agencies, and establishes crisis stabilization units to divert people who have mental illnesses away from county jails to provide treatment at the local level. With these changes, Arkansas is estimated to avert $288 million in corrections costs by 2023. Arkansas allocated $6.4 million in 2018 for Crisis Intervention Team training for law enforcement officers and the establishment and operation of four crisis stabilization units.
Between 2010 and 2016, Missouri’s violent crime rate increased 13 percent, while arrests for these crimes declined. At the same time, Missouri’s prison population swelled, driven mostly by admissions for supervision violations. Comprehensive Justice Reinvestment legislation was signed into law in 2018 and aims to provide resources to local law enforcement to help reduce violent crime, increase community-based treatment for people in the criminal justice system who have substance use disorders and mental illnesses, and increase support for victims, among other measures. The state expects to reduce recidivism and avert $485 million in corrections costs by 2023.
In 2011, North Carolina faced rising corrections costs and a prison population projected to grow 10 percent by 2020. In response, state lawmakers passed comprehensive legislation in 2011 that focuses supervision and treatment resources where they can have the biggest impact, empowers probation officers to employ swift and certain sanctions to respond to probation violations, and ensures that every individual convicted of a felony who leaves prison will receive supervision. Since enactment of these reforms, probation revocations have fallen by approximately 25 percent, admissions to prison have declined 28 percent, and the state’s prison population has dropped 12 percent, allowing the state to close 11 small prisons. The state’s crime rate has fallen 30 percent since enactment of Justice Reinvestment legislation. North Carolina reports saving and averting more than $543 million in corrections costs and has invested more than $47 million, largely in efforts to strengthen community supervision.
Between 2007 and 2011, Pennsylvania’s prison population increased 12 percent, resulting in overcrowded prisons and a need to build new facilities. In 2012, policymakers enacted legislation to improve community correction programs, divert people convicted of low-level misdemeanors from prison, and reduce parole revocations. In 2018, the state recorded the largest one-year decline in its prison population since 2007. A second round of Justice Reinvestment began in 2015, culminating in new legislation enacted in 2019 that aims to eliminate delays in releasing people with short sentences from prison and streamline the process used to direct people into drug treatment. The legislation is expected to reduce the state prison population by more than 600 people over 5 years, saving taxpayers an estimated $45 million in corrections costs.
By 2010, South Carolina’s correctional population had nearly tripled during the past 25 years and was projected to grow 13 percent by 2014. In 2010, the state passed legislation that changed sentencing policies to prioritize prison space for people convicted of chronic and violent offenses, improved parole, strengthened community supervision, and ensured ongoing oversight of sentencing and corrections reforms. Since then, the prison population has decreased 14 percent, helping the state avoid nearly half a billion dollars in costs, while the crime rate has also fallen.
How to Launch Justice Reinvestment in Your State
In conversations with CSG Justice Center staff, state leaders indicate their commitment to receiving intensive technical assistance through Justice Reinvestment to address their state’s challenges.
Hold Orientation Meetings
CSG Justice Center staff meet with state leaders to discuss the Justice Reinvestment process and the state’s objectives. These meetings include leaders in corrections and community supervision agencies, the governor’s office, the legislature and the judiciary, as well as other key stakeholders in the criminal justice system. The CSG Justice Center will also assess the state’s capacity to collect, share, and analyze data across key points in the criminal justice system.
The Justice Reinvestment Initiative is funded by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) and The Pew Charitable Trusts. State leaders must submit a formal letter of interest to BJA and Pew, which will be reviewed to assess the readiness of the state to undertake a Justice Reinvestment Initiative.
Create an Interagency Task Force
States create a committee—informally or by statute or executive order—to guide the Justice Reinvestment effort. While states tailor the composition and leadership of their committee to meet their needs, all committees should include representatives from all three branches of government and key criminal justice stakeholders.
States will make as much data available as possible to the CSG Justice Center, including case-level data, inclusive of basic demographics, that cover arrests and criminal history, sentencing, jails, prison, probation and parole supervision, and behavioral health. This data ensures that once a state launches JRI, the CSG Justice Center can conduct a comprehensive analysis of the state’s crime, arrest, and conviction rates and pretrial, probation, parole, prison, and jail populations.
Launch the Initiative
Most states plan a public announcement for state leaders to launch the effort and outline big-picture goals. Usually this involves a press conference with the governor, chief justice, Senate president, Speaker of the House, and other key officials formally launching the state’s Justice Reinvestment effort.
The Project Phases
The first phase of a project, including data analysis, stakeholder engagement, and the development of policy recommendations, typically lasts between 9 and 18 months. States may be eligible to continue for an additional 12–24 months to support the implementation of new policies and track their impact.