The Center's work on 'Budgets' Issues


Growing Incarceration Contributed Little to Drop in Crime, Study Finds

February 26, 2015 at 1:33 pm

Increased incarceration has contributed next to nothing to the sharp drop in crime over the past 25 years, a recent Brennan Center for Justice report finds. This research, along with other recent analysis challenging the belief that incarcerating a bigger share of offenders and for longer periods would significantly reduce crime, suggests that states would be better off spending less on locking people up and more on education, mental health, and substance abuse treatment.

As our report on criminal justice reform explains, 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 (see graph).  This growth has been costly.  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 to spend on more productive investments or a mix of investments and tax reductions.

The Brennan Center report found that while rising incarceration rates helped reduce property and violent crime rates in the 1990s, the effect was much smaller than some other studies have suggested, accounting for 0-10 percent of the total decline over the decade.  Since 2000, rising incarceration rates account for less than 1 percent of the decline in crime rates.

“This report’s analysis reveals that incarceration has been decreasing as a crime fighting tactic since at least 1980,” the authors conclude. “Since approximately 1990, the effectiveness of increased incarceration on bringing down crime has been essentially zero.”  Factors such as an aging population, higher earnings, lower alcohol consumption, and smarter police tactics may have done as much or more to reduce crime, according to the study.

We’ve outlined four basic ways that states can reduce their prison populations to free up funds for schools and other investments in human capital: decriminalize and reclassify certain low-level felonies, shorten prison terms and parole/probation periods, restrict the use of prison for parole violations, and divert people with mental health and substance abuse issues out of the system altogether.

Improving State Budget Policies

December 4, 2014 at 2:26 pm

States’ choices about investing in schools, health care, child care, and other services can either help create opportunity and prosperity for people or hold them back.  This short video explains how the State Priorities Partnership, a national network of 41 independent state policy organizations, works to:

  • strengthen policies that affect low- and moderate-income families, such as health care, economic security, education, and child care;
  • make state tax systems fairer and more effective in raising needed resources; and
  • help other nonprofits and the general public participate in debates about budget priorities.

Launched in 1993 in 12 states, the network — which local and national foundations support — has grown steadily; its 41 states include four-fifths of the U.S. population.  CBPP coordinates the network.

The Rise in State Prison Populations

December 3, 2014 at 10:01 am

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.

California Votes to Shrink Prison Population and Reinvest Savings

November 6, 2014 at 4:28 pm

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.

Specifically, it:

  • 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.

How Has State K-12 Funding Fared in Your State?

November 5, 2014 at 3:00 pm

This interactive map shows the change — in both dollars and percent — in state general K-12 funding per student since 2008.  As our recent report explains, funding is below pre-recession levels in at least 30 states, after adjusting for inflation; in 14 states, the decline exceeds 10 percent.  While most states are providing more funding per student this school year than they did a year ago, funding generally hasn’t risen enough to fully offset earlier cuts.