Most states’ prison populations are at historic highs after decades of extraordinary growth. This growth has been costly, limiting economic opportunity for communities with especially high incarceration rates and taking critical resources from other important investments, such as education. Click on the map below to learn more about the rise in prison populations and spending in each state. The downloadable data file also includes state-by-state information on recent criminal justice reforms.
More About 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 CBPP.org
California voters approved Tuesday a measure to not only reduce the state prison population but also reinvest the savings in specific, high-priority programs. As our recent report on criminal justice reform and education investments explains, Proposition 47 includes several features that make it a model reform.
- Makes targeted sentencing reductions by reclassifying certain offenses from felonies to misdemeanors, for both current and future offenders.
- Requires the state to calculate the savings from these reforms each year and deposit them in a dedicated fund.
- Earmarks the savings for specific investments in mental health and substance abuse treatment, supporting at-risk youth in schools, and victim services.
State policies have been the major drivers of rising prison populations in recent decades, so these changes will reduce prison overcrowding and lower incarceration rates. The California Legislative Analyst’s Office estimates that Proposition 47 would likely cut the state’s prison population by several thousand inmates while generating corrections savings in the low hundreds of millions of dollars annually. Even better, research indicates that states can significantly reduce their prison populations without harming public safety.
Just as important, Proposition 47 ensures that the savings get reinvested in specific areas of the budget. While most states have enacted criminal justice reforms, few have directed the savings to investments in human capital (such as education) or low-income neighborhoods.
I outlined recently the causes and costs of states’ high incarceration rates. While most states, under both Republican and Democratic control, have enacted criminal justice reforms in recent years to reduce prison populations without harming public safety, most states’ reforms to date haven’t been extensive enough to have a big impact on prison populations.
State policymakers need to enact reforms that target the main drivers of high incarceration rates: the number of people admitted (or re-admitted) into correctional facilities and the length of their prison stays. States should consider four basic kinds of reforms:
- Decriminalize certain activities and reclassify certain low-level felonies. The increased use of prison — and longer prison sentences — to punish crimes such as the possession of certain drugs, like marijuana, has contributed heavily to the growth in mass incarceration. Lawmakers should look to reduce or eliminate criminal penalties for such crimes when doing so would not affect public safety.
- Expand the use of alternatives to prison for non-violent crimes and divert people with mental health or substance abuse issues away from the criminal justice system altogether. Policymakers should assess the range of sentencing alternatives available in their state, such as drug and mental health courts and related treatment, community correction centers, community service, sex offender treatment, and fines and victim restitution. Whenever possible, people whose crimes stem from addiction or mental illness should be diverted into treatment programs rather than sent to prison. New York State adopted this approach as part of its successful corrections reforms (see below).
- Reduce the length of prison terms and parole/probation periods. Policymakers should reform unnecessarily harsh sentencing policies, including “truth-in-sentencing” requirements and mandatory minimum sentences, and allow inmates to reduce their sentences through good time or earned time policies. States also should expand programs that enable inmates meeting certain requirements to receive favorable decisions in parole hearings, especially in states where parole grant rates remain low.
- Restrict the use of prison for technical violations of parole/probation. The share of individuals entering prison due to a parole violation grew rapidly between the late 1970s and the late 2000s. While it has fallen more recently, parole revocations accounted for more than a quarter of admissions to state prisons in 2013. Some of these violations are technical, such as missing a meeting with a probation officer or failing a drug test. States should heavily restrict the use of prison for technical parole violators and implement graduated sanctions for more serious parole violations.
States can also adopt more effective probation policies. For example, Hawaii has sharply reduced probation revocations with a program that punishes infractions more quickly and with more certainty, but with much shorter periods of incarceration.
These reforms are complementary; adopting just one or two won’t shrink a state’s prison population as much as a more comprehensive set of reforms that improves “front-end” sentencing and admission policies as well as “back-end” release and re-entry policies. New Jersey, New York, and California have adopted comprehensive reforms that helped drive down prison populations in each of those states by roughly 25 percent, even as crime rates continued to fall.
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.
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.