Urban Wire State of the Prisons: a call for evidence-based reform
Nancy G. La Vigne
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As President Obama prepares his State of the Union address, he’d do well to devote attention to our highly troubled state and federal prison systems. Our incarcerated population has grown rapidly, recidivism rates are high, and the costs to taxpayers are unsustainable.

The good news is that a large and growing body of research provides clear and actionable data on both the problems and their tried-and-true solutions.

The prison system and public safety

For decades, we’ve incarcerated people at alarmingly high rates. Until just recently, the growth rate of the prison population has been equally disturbing, with the latest tally of people housed in state and federal prisons coming in at about 1.5 million*.

The exponential growth of the federal prison population poses safety risks for prisoners and staff alike. What’s more, it limits access to services like education and drug-treatment programs that are critical to preventing recidivism—making overcrowding a danger to us all.

These risks come with a great financial burden. The federal Bureau of Prisons’ budget for FY 2014 is $6.9 billion, a quarter of the DOJ’s entire budget. Without meaningful reforms, that share will grow to a third within the decade. Such massive correctional spending comes at a huge cost to other important public safety investments.

Can we reverse the tide?

Despite these obstacles, there is reason for optimism. Several states have already made meaningful reforms to their state prison systems by funding smart, research-backed public safety strategies that reduce incarceration rates and save money. Similar strategies can work throughout the prison system.

Other research has also shown us how important it is to support former prisoners with tailored supervision and services as they reenter society. This support sets them up for success by connecting them to positive social networks and employment. Without these, they are far more likely to reoffend.

So, what can we do to prevent our prisons from further overcrowding?

Policy options

Research indicates that a host of reforms will be needed to reduce the growth of the federal prison system, such as:

  • Reducing or eliminating mandatory minimum drug sentences
  • Giving judges discretion in the application of mandatory minimums
  • Lowering the minimum share of a sentence an offender is required to serve

There are also key lessons to be learned from the states, as we document in our soon-to-be released report on the groundbreaking Justice Reinvestment Initiative. For example:

  • How proven risk-assessment tools can help courts and judges evaluate the likelihood of recidivism.
  • Why some offenders may be far better served with community- rather than prison-based treatment programs, saving taxpayers money.
  • How reducing sentence lengths, streamlining parole systems, and expanding eligibility can also reduce prison times and cut spending on unnecessary incarceration.

These and other strategies benefit prisoners who fall at the mercy of harsh sentences and long prison terms. Creative solutions like these help people stay out of prison and save taxpayers money.

It’s time to invest in these reforms, for the millions of Americans in our prison system—as well as for those who aren’t.

Follow Nancy La Vigne on Twitter at @NLVigne

*This post has been corrected from a previous version to reflect that there are 1.5 million state and federal prisoners, not 7 million. Our apologies.


Photo by Pat Sullivan/AP

Research Areas Crime, justice, and safety
Tags Courts and sentencing Crime and justice analytics