More About Michael Mitchell

Michael Mitchell

Michael Mitchell is a Policy Analyst with the Center’s State Fiscal Policy division. Prior to joining the Center, Mitchell worked as a State Policy Fellow for the Washington State Budget & Policy Center, where he conducted research on state taxes and borrowing, the effects of budget cuts on communities of color, and the impacts of the recession on young adults. Mitchell holds a B.A. in Economics and Political Science from the University of Connecticut and an MPA from the Maxwell School at Syracuse University.

Full bio and recent public appearances | Research archive at

The Causes and Costs of High Incarceration Rates

October 29, 2014 at 1:12 pm

Most states’ prison populations are at historic highs, I explained yesterday, imposing high costs on states even as many states have cut education funding.  Here’s a closer look at the causes and impacts of high incarceration rates:

Incarceration rates have risen mainly because states are sending a much larger share of offenders to prison and keeping them there longer — two factors under policymakers’ direct control.  Reforms to reduce prison populations will need to target these two areas.

More specifically, research on the causes of rising incarceration rates has found:

  • Crime rates have risen and fallen independently of incarceration rates.  Crime rates began rising in the early 1960s, roughly a decade before incarceration rates did.  In the 1980s, violent and property crime rates fluctuated, while incarceration rates continued rising.  By the end of the 1990s, crime rates had fallen to 1970s levels, and they have continued to fall throughout the 2000s; yet incarceration rates continued to grow well into the 2000s, peaking in 2007 (see graph).

  • Arrests per crime have been relatively stable.  Incarceration rates may rise even when crime rates remain stable if police become more effective at apprehending offenders.  Yet, “by the measure of the ratio of arrests to crimes, no increase in policing effectiveness occurred from 1980 to 2010 that might explain higher rates of incarceration,” a recent National Research Council report concluded.
  • The share of offenders sent to prison has climbed dramatically.  For all major crime types, the likelihood that a person convicted of a crime will go to prison has risen sharply over the past 30 years.  That’s especially true for drug offenses; the likelihood of being sent to prison for a drug-related crime rose by 350 percent between 1980 and 2010.  The increase in the share of offenders sent to prison accounts for 44 to 49 percent of the long-term growth in state incarceration rates, the National Research Council study estimated.
  • Length of stay in prison has grown for all types of crimes.  Between 1990 and 2009, the average time served rose by nearly 25 percent for property crimes and by roughly 37 percent for violent and drug crimes, the Pew Center on the States estimates.  The increase in average sentences has contributed as much to the growth in incarceration rates as the rise in the share of offenders sent to prison, and possibly slightly more.

High incarceration rates impose significant human (as well as budgetary) costs.  People with criminal convictions face serious challenges in finding stable, decent-paying jobs.  Time behind bars is generally time lost developing the skills and education increasingly necessary in today’s labor market, a particular problem given that formerly incarcerated people typically have less education.

Even those who do find jobs typically earn less than otherwise-similar people who haven’t been incarcerated.  A Pew study found that men with a criminal conviction worked roughly nine fewer weeks, and earned 40 percent less, each year than otherwise similar non-offenders.

Incarceration also increases poverty, for former inmates as well as other household members, including children.  Many inmates are also parents and/or partners, and their incarceration leaves households with one less potential wage earner.

Tomorrow I’ll outline some ways that states can reduce high incarceration rates, generating savings that they can use more productively.

States Should Spend Less on Prisons, More on Schools

October 28, 2014 at 2:58 pm

The huge growth in state prison populations in recent decades has created mounting budget challenges for states, our new report explains.  State economies would be much stronger over time if states invested more in education and other areas that can boost long-term economic growth and less in maintaining extremely high prison populations.

If states were still spending on corrections what they spent in the mid-1980s, adjusted for inflation, they would have about $28 billion more each year that they could spend on more productive investments or a mix of investments and tax reductions.

Most states’ prison populations are at historic highs; in 36 states, the prison population has more than tripled as a share of state population since 1978.  This growth, which continued even after crime rates fell substantially in the 1990s, has been costly.  Corrections spending rose in every state between 1986 and 2013, after adjusting for inflation (see graph below), climbing from $20 billion nationally to over $47 billion.  Corrections spending is now the third-largest category of spending in most states, behind education and health care.

At the same time, states are underinvesting in educating children and young adults, especially those in high-poverty neighborhoods.  At least 30 states are providing less general funding per student this year for K-12 schools than before the recession, after adjusting for inflation; in 14 states, the reduction exceeds 10 percent.

Higher education cuts have been even deeper:  the average state has cut higher education funding per student by 23 percent since the recession hit, after adjusting for inflation.  Eleven states spent more of their general funds on corrections than on higher education in 2013.

Moreover, some states with the biggest education cuts in recent years are among those with the nation’s highest incarceration rates.

States can reduce their incarceration rates — without harming public safety — through such reforms as reclassifying low-level felonies to misdemeanors where appropriate, expanding the use of alternatives to prison (such as fines and victim restitution), and eliminating prison sentences for technical violations of parole/probation where no new crime was committed.  And they could use the freed-up funds in a number of ways, such as expanding access to high-quality preschool, reducing class sizes in high-poverty schools, and revising state funding formulas to invest more in high-poverty neighborhoods.  (We’ll discuss these criminal justice and education reforms in more detail in future posts.)

The savings from criminal justice reforms wouldn’t fully finance the increased education investments needed, partly because states will likely spend much of the savings elsewhere.  But reordering state priorities away from maintaining large prison populations and toward investing in human capital will pay off over the long term.

District of Columbia Shows How to Cut Taxes Responsibly

June 12, 2014 at 11:57 am

The District of Columbia functions much like a state government when it comes to tax policy, and new tax changes there show how states can cut taxes in a responsible way for a broad range of families while still funding important services.  It’s a particularly helpful model in light of the poorly designed tax cuts that have been so common in states over the last two years.

The D.C. bill, which the City Council approved on May 28, takes several steps to create a more equitable and sustainable tax system, including:

  • Providing progressive tax cuts while investing in needed services.  The bill includes several income tax cuts that are much larger (as a share of income) for low- and moderate-income families than for high-income households — an important goal in this era of widening income inequality.  And, the cuts are fully paid for with funds from transportation projects that have more resources than they need.  Financing the tax cuts with those dollars — rather than pulling the money out of the general fund — enabled lawmakers to devote more general fund revenues to homeless and mental health services, affordable housing, help for low-income parents with newborn children, and other important services.
  • Expanding help for low-income childless workers.  The bill’s progressive tax cuts include boosting the maximum earned income tax credit (EITC) for childless workers and expanding the credit’s phase-out range so that childless workers with annual incomes up to twice the federal poverty line (that is, up to roughly $23,000 for an individual) can qualify.  Boosting the EITC for childless workers is good policy — it will reduce poverty and encourage work — and has gained bipartisan support at the federal level as well.
  • Broadening and modernizing the sales tax base.  The bill expands D.C.’s sales tax to cover more services — a fast-growing share of overall consumption that many state tax codes overlook.  For example, the sales tax will now apply to carpet cleaning and fitness club memberships, so that consumers of those services will pay the same sales taxes as purchasers of tangible goods like vacuum cleaners and barbells.

The bill includes some unwise changes.  In particular, it gives wealthy households a significant estate tax cut by raising the threshold — that is, the value of an estate that is exempt from taxation — from $1 million to $5.25 million.  This change will benefit only a few wealthy households while costing D.C. millions of dollars a year.

Nevertheless, D.C.’s tax and budget choices stand in stark contrast to some other states’ irresponsible policies.

North Carolina, for example, has slashed taxes on wealthy households and corporations while raising taxes on low- and middle-income families, cutting jobless benefits, and blowing a huge hole in the state budget that will make restoring recession-era cuts in funding for K-12 schools and public colleges and universities next to impossible.

In Kansas, costly tax cuts overwhelmingly directed to wealthy households and corporations have led to further cuts in funding for colleges and universities, local health departments, and other important services — adding to cuts enacted after the recession hit.  The tax cuts haven’t delivered the promised boost to the state’s economy.

With economic growth modest and revenues just now returning to pre-recession levels, states should approach tax cuts carefully and thoughtfully.  But if tax cuts are part of the conversation, the District of Columbia provides a model worth considering.

Mapping Higher Ed Funding Cuts and Tuition Hikes

June 4, 2014 at 9:58 am

Most states in the past year have begun to restore some of the cuts they made to higher education funding after the recession hit.  In almost all states, however, higher education funding remains well below pre-recession levels, as we explained in a recent paper.  The large state funding cuts have led to both steep college tuition increases and spending cuts that may diminish the quality of education for students.

Consider that, nationwide, after adjusting for inflation:

  • The average state is spending $2,026, or 23 percent, less per student than before the recession; and
  • Annual published tuition — the “sticker price” — at four-year public colleges has risen by $1,936, or 28 percent, since the 2007-08 school year.

Click on the map below to learn more about how higher education funding and tuition have changed in each state since the recession.

A highly educated workforce is more crucial than ever to the nation’s economic future.  To rebuild states’ higher education systems in the coming years, policymakers in many states will need to raise revenue or, at the very least, avoid shortsighted tax cuts, which would make it much harder to invest in higher education.

Higher Ed Cuts, Tuition Hikes Worsen Low-Income Students’ Struggles

May 7, 2014 at 2:46 pm

State cuts to higher education have led colleges and universities to make deep cuts to educational or other services, hike tuition sharply, or both, as we explain in our recently released paper.  These tuition increases are hitting low-income students particularly hard, lessening their choices of schools, adding to their debt burdens — and likely deterring some from enrolling in school altogether.

Annual published tuition — the “sticker price” — at four-year public colleges has risen by $1,936, or 28 percent, since the 2007-08 school year, after adjusting for inflation.  This has accelerated longer-term trends of reducing college affordability and shifting costs from states to students.  These trends have exacerbated struggles for students from low-income families, in several ways.

Tuition increases are likely deterring low-income students, in particular, from enrolling.  College cost increases have the biggest impact on students from low-income families, research suggests.  Pronounced gaps in college enrollment among higher- and lower-income youth already exist, even among prospective students of similar ability (see chart).  Rapidly rising costs at public colleges and universities may widen these gaps further.

Tuition increases may be pushing lower-income students toward less-selective schools, reducing their future earnings.  Perhaps just as important as a student’s decision to enroll in college is the choice of which school to attend.  Even here, financial constraints and concerns about cost push lower-income students to narrow their list of potential schools and ultimately enroll in less-selective institutions, the research shows.  That choice has long-lasting effects, as disadvantaged and minority students who attend elite colleges make more than their counterparts who attend less-selective schools.

Higher overall costs mean higher post-graduate debt levels.  Federal financial aid also has risen in the last several years, helping many low-income students cover much of the cost of recent tuition hikes.  The overall cost of attending college has risen for these students, however, because room and board costs have increased, too.  As a result, the net cost of attendance at four-year public institutions for low-income students increased 12 percent from 2008 to 2012, after adjusting for inflation.  And this means that low-income students are  borrowing more.  In 2008, the median debt level for a low-income student graduating from a public four-year university was just under $17,600.  By 2012, that number had increased 17 percent to nearly $20,700.