The Center's work on 'Budgets' Issues


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.


State K-12 Funding in 80 Seconds

November 4, 2014 at 9:47 am

Most states continue to spend less — often far less — per student in general funding for kindergarten through 12th grade than they did before the recession began seven years ago, as our latest analysis shows.  These cuts have serious consequences for students, schools, and jobs.  This short video explains what states should do to ensure that children have the education to succeed in the global economy.

4 Ways States Can Reduce Incarceration Rates

October 31, 2014 at 11:51 am

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.

Debating Kansas’ Tax Cuts

October 30, 2014 at 1:10 pm

With Kansas’ radical tax cuts drawing national attention this election season, I recently debated the Heritage Foundation’s Stephen Moore, who advised Governor Sam Brownback on the tax cuts, on their impact.  The full debate, published by State Tax Notes and moderated by its commentary editor Doug Sheppard, is here.  Below is a brief excerpt:

Leachman:  In 2012 you and Arthur Laffer wrote, ‘‘The quality of schools also matters as does the state’s highway system, but it takes years for those policies to pay dividends, while cutting taxes can have a near immediate and permanent impact, which is why we have advised Oklahoma, Kansas, and other states to cut their income tax rates if they want the most effective immediate and lasting boost to their states’ economies.’’  Why — 18 months after the income tax rate cuts were implemented — isn’t Kansas’s economy performing better?

Moore:  It’s a little early to tell about Kansas.  A 1.5 percentage point tax cut isn’t going to turn this Midwestern state into Beverly Hills or Boca Raton.  If Kansas can continue to get the rate down to close to zero, we would expect to see some strong growth effects.  Our advice to Brownback is full speed on the tax cuts.

Leachman:  The total income tax cut in Kansas was very large, equaling at least 9 percent of revenues this fiscal year.  It’s hard to expect a state to do more than that.  And again, Moore said cutting income taxes is the most effective way to immediately boost state economies.  Hearing now that they’ve got to do substantially more tax cutting before they’ll see strong growth effects has got to be disappointing to people who believed in the Kansas experiment.

And here’s part of my final statement in the debate:

Kansas followed Moore’s simplistic advice:  Slash your income taxes and your economy will surge.  But that advice is wrong.  And now, Kansas’s finances are in shambles, its economy is ho-hum, and its future looks worse — not better.  Other states that follow this path can expect a similar result.

This debate is not really just about Kansas.  Other states have passed — more recently than Kansas — irresponsibly large income tax cuts under the guise of economic revitalization.  The tax cuts enacted by these other states — Missouri, North Carolina, Indiana, and Ohio, for example — are not much different from Kansas’s.  While none were as big as the Kansas cuts, they generally included many of the same ingredients.  At their core is big cuts in income tax rates for the highest-income households to be paid for with cuts in funding for schools and other public services key to future economic growth, and often tax increases for low-income families. . . .

Economic growth will not save these states from further diminishing their education systems or other important public services — services already damaged by the Great Recession and its aftermath.  And as in Kansas, there’s no reason to think the tax cuts will cause these states to see their economies boom in the years ahead. . . .