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March 3, 2010

New Reports Authored by The Sentencing Project Find Trend in Reform Policies, Prison Downsizing

As states grapple with the fiscal crisis and confront costly and overburdened criminal justice systems, two reports released today by The Sentencing Project offer roadmaps to successful prison downsizing that maintain public safety. The reports document a growing trend to reform sentencing policies and scale back the use of imprisonment in order to control spending.

"Downscaling Prisons: Lessons from Four States," released by Justice Strategies and The Sentencing Project, finds that four states - Kansas, Michigan, New Jersey, and New York - have reduced their prison populations by 5-20% since 1999 without any increases in crime. This came about at a time when the national prison population increased by 12%; and in six states it increased by more than 40%.  The reductions were achieved through a mix of legislative reforms and changes in practice by corrections and parole agencies. The reforms included:

  • Kansas - Changed sentencing guidelines to divert lower-level drug cases to treatment rather than incarceration; Expanded supportive services to people on parole supervision.
  • Michigan - Eliminated most mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses; enacted statewide initiative to reduce parole revocations and enhance employment, housing, and treatment services for people leaving prison.
  • New Jersey - Increased parole releases by adopting risk assessment instruments and utilizing day reporting centers and electronic monitoring.
  • New York - Scaled back harsh drug penalties, established Drug Treatment Alternative to Prison programs, and applied "merit time" credits to speed up parole consideration.

Other states have joined this trend, and 2009 proved to be a high mark for such reforms.  The Sentencing Project's report, "The State of Sentencing 2009: Developments in Policy and Practice," by Nicole D. Porter, highlights reforms in at least 19 states that hold the potential of further prison population reductions. Key among these reforms are:

  • Three states - Minnesota, New York, and Rhode Island - significantly scaled back the scope of mandatory sentencing laws for certain drug offenses.
  • Seven states increased the proportion of "good time" credits to be earned in prison to expedite parole eligibility.
  • Four states Arkansas, Illinois, Nebraska and New Jersey - established oversight committees to examine sentencing policies, prison overcrowding and reentry services.

Figures recently released by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics document a record prison and jail population of 2.3 million as of 2008, but also indicate that the population in state prisons is stabilizing.  Overall, 20 states achieved at least modest reductions in their prison populations between 2007 and 2008.

read Washington Post

read North Country Gazette

read "Downscaling Prisons: Lessons from Four States"

read "The State of Sentencing 2009: Developments in Policy and Practice"

Issue Area(s): Sentencing Policy, Incarceration