Urban Wire How evidence-based strategies can spur successful correctional reform
Nicole Levins
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When it comes to correctional reform, the federal government could learn a thing or two from the states, according to Nancy La Vigne, director of the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center.

At yesterday’s convening of the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigation, La Vigne outlined successful, evidence-based strategies adopted by the 17 states involved in the Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI), and how these lessons could apply at the federal level.

“Many JRI states have slowed prison growth, reduced overcrowding, and saved taxpayers money without sacrificing public safety,” La Vigne testified. “The crime rate in almost all of the states that have reduced their prison populations continued to decline.”

But while “the state incarceration rate has remained largely constant for the past decade… the federal incarceration rate has grown by over a third,” she explained in her testimony. And with its current population exceeding 216,000 and projected to grow for the foreseeable future, the federal government will have to continue to allocate resources to the Bureau of Prisons at the expense of other public safety priorities.

So how have some states managed to reduce recidivism and stem the tide of unsustainable, expensive prison growth? Much of their success can be attributed to the adoption of proven strategies and evidence-based policy.

“Every decision we make will be a decision that research indicates is likely to have the best outcome,” said John Wetzel, secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections. “And if you sprinkle that throughout the whole system, starting at the front end, then you can’t go wrong.”

Texas has adopted a similar approach. “We asked what programs were working, and we asked for actual data that showed their successes,” testified Jerry Madden, senior fellow for Right on Crime and former chairman of the Texas House Corrections Committee.

So what does work? Based on the research, La Vigne concluded that a combination of front-end (sentencing and intake) and back-end (release and reentry) policies are necessary for both short- and long-term reductions in federal prison growth.

Specific evidence-based strategies include:

  • Sentence reductions and earned  time off for program participation and good conduct behind bars
  • Reductions to mandatory minimums for low-level drug offenders
  • Risk and needs assessments to determine what programs and treatment will best reduce an individual’s likelihood of offending

What doesn’t work: the status quo. Even with its prisons at 192 percent capacity, Alabama still has the nation’s eighth-highest crime rate, said State Senator Cam Ward. “That tells us one thing: Locking them up and throwing away the key is not the solution to our problem.”

Photo of Nancy La Vigne by Christina Baird, Urban Institute.


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The Urban Institute podcast, Evidence in Action, inspires changemakers to lead with evidence and act with equity. Cohosted by Urban President Sarah Rosen Wartell and Executive Vice President Kimberlyn Leary, every episode features in-depth discussions with experts and leaders on topics ranging from how to advance equity, to designing innovative solutions that achieve community impact, to what it means to practice evidence-based leadership.


Research Areas Crime, justice, and safety
Tags Corrections Courts and sentencing Crime and justice analytics Policing and community safety
Policy Centers Justice Policy Center