Where are we headed with our internationally unique system of mass incarceration? The needle has slowly started moving in the right direction after decades of high growth, in large part because of the dozens of states that have reduced their prison populations.
The number of people in state prisons nationwide peaked at 1.4 million in 2009 and has since declined modestly—a little over 5% during the past decade—as dozens of states passed legislation recognizing that more incarceration does not equal more public safety.
New York has long been at the forefront of these reforms. Its prison population has declined by 25% since its peak in 1999—in large part because of New York City, where crime and incarceration are both at 20-year lows.
Not only does downsizing prisons abate the human suffering of mass incarceration, but it can also unlock enormous taxpayer savings. According to our new report, 13 states where prison populations have fallen in recent years—including New York and New Jersey—collectively spent $1.6 billion less on prisons in 2015 than in 2010 and all saw crime rates drop.
At the federal level, prison populations similarly began to decline. However, new guidance from the Department of Justice that instructs federal prosecutors to pursue maximum charges in all cases puts this progress at risk. If states adopt similar policies, they will hurt both people and pocketbooks—without making us safer.
In New York, the prison population reduction was driven by reforms in New York City. Fewer felony arrests by the NYPD and the increased use of alternatives to incarceration—such as drug treatment—by judges and prosecutors has reduced the prison population by 6,000 since 2010. Consequently, the state was able to close 14 prisons and reduce its payroll by 11%, which helped shrink the prison budget by $302 million—an 8% decline.
In New Jersey, annual prison spending declined by $159 million as a result of expanding the use of diversion programs, such as drug courts, and increased rates of parole. And the movement to downsize prisons and prison budgets has also taken root in conservative states, such as South Carolina, where bipartisan legislation to reduce the number of people sent to prison for probation or parole violations such as missing an appointment or failing a drug test has stemmed the tide of people incarcerated for low-level offenses. As a result, the prison population has declined by 12%, making it possible to close three prisons and reduce the annual prison budget by $11 million.
These impressive savings are not automatic when prison populations decline—an important thing for states to keep in mind as they pursue reform. The rising cost of staff salary and benefits often stymies savings. We see this in California and Rhode Island, where despite a decline in prison population and prison staff, prison spending increased because salary and pension costs outpaced inflation. But, to be sure, the cost of prison in these states would have been far higher had they not downsized the incarcerated population.
The recent move toward longer sentences at the federal level does not directly affect progress in the states, where more than 85% of the nation’s prison population is held. However, the federal government’s rhetoric can influence the public discourse and risks creating the misperception that prisons need to be larger in order to achieve public safety.
New York and many other states have already chosen a different direction. They have proven that they can have smaller and cheaper prisons and drive down crime. While the pace of state-level reform may seem slow, there are still 77,000 fewer people in state prisons today than 2010—a number that exceeds the prison populations of Oklahoma, Maryland and Wisconsin combined. To ignore this progress—not to mention the decades of evidence showing that heavyhanded use of incarceration does not achieve its goals—would be detrimental to individuals, communities and taxpayers alike.
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