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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.


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