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State Cost Savings From Criminal Justice Reforms: Some Examples

As I noted yesterday, state spending on corrections has soared in recent decades, leaving less for schools and other priorities. If states had spent the same share of their budgets on corrections in 2010 as in 1986, they would have had over $16 billion to protect these priorities from the harmful spending cuts imposed that year.

Several states have enacted criminal justice reforms in recent years that provide cost-saving alternatives to incarceration. These states have seen their crime rates remain at historically low levels or decline further.  For example:

  • In 2007, building on earlier reforms, Kansas enacted laws that expanded parole eligibility and reduced the number of people sent to prison for technical parole and probation violations. These reforms are projected to save the state $80 million between 2007and 2012 and to reduce by about 14 percent its prison population in 2017. After 2007, Kansas’ crime rate fell to its lowest level since 1973.
  • Kentucky enacted a law in 2011 that eliminated pre-trial detention and offered probation for many drug offenses. The law made marijuana possession a misdemeanor, reduced sentences for some drug crimes, and expanded parole eligibility. This reform is projected to save the state $422 million by 2020 and reduce its prison population growth by over 17 percent.
  • In 2010, South Carolina enacted a law that required fiscal impact statements for criminal justice bills, eliminated some mandatory minimum sentences, equalized sentencing for crack and powder cocaine crimes, provided non-prison alternatives for some drug offenses, and expanded parole and probation eligibility. This reform is projected to save the state $241 million by 2014 and reduce its prison population growth by 7 percent.
  • From 2007 to 2011, Texas enacted laws that created drug treatment programs, offered non-prison sanctions for technical parole violations, and expanded parole and probation eligibility. Through the current fiscal year, these reforms saved the state an estimated $2 billion in prison construction costs and reduced its projected prison population by over 11,000 people. After 2007, as in Kansas, Texas’ crime rate fell to the lowest level since 1973.

More states might take steps like these if lawmakers knew about the potential cost savings.  The report we released this week with the ACLU describes how states can do a better job of analyzing the budgetary impact of criminal justice reforms.