Fiscal Crisis, Incarceration Rates Spur Downsizing

North Country Gazette
Published: March 3, 2010
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As states grapple with the fiscal crisis and confront costly and overburdened criminal justice systems, two reports released Wednesday by The Sentencing Project offer roadmaps to successful prison downsizing that maintain public safety.

The reports document a growing trend to reform sentencing policies and scale back the use of imprisonment in order to control spending.

“Downscaling Prisons: Lessons from Four States,” released by Justice Strategies and The Sentencing Project, finds that four states – Kansas, Michigan, New Jersey, and New York – have reduced their prison populations by 5% to 20% since 1999 without any increases in crime. This came about at a time when the national prison population increased by 12%; and in six states it increased by more than 40%. The reductions were achieved through a mix of legislative reforms and changes in practice by corrections and parole agencies. The reforms included:

  • Kansas – Changed sentencing guidelines to divert lower-level drug cases to treatment rather than incarceration; Expanded supportive services to people on parole supervision.
  • Michigan – Eliminated most mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses; enacted statewide initiative to reduce parole revocations and enhance employment, housing, and treatment services for people leaving prison.
  • New Jersey – Increased parole releases by adopting risk assessment instruments and utilizing day reporting centers and electronic monitoring.
  • New York – Scaled back harsh drug penalties, established Drug Treatment Alternative to Prison programs, and applied “merit time” credits to speed up parole consideration.

“These states provide constructive models for other states confronted with bloated prison populations and budgets,” said Judith Greene of Justice Strategies, and co-author of “Downscaling Prisons.”

“Safer and more cost-effective alternatives exist for policymakers reevaluating their current justice system.”