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Decarceration Strategies: How 5 States Achieved Substantial Prison Population Reductions

Connecticut, Michigan, Mississippi, Rhode Island, and South Carolina have reduced their prison populations between 14-25% over the past decade. This report describes how these five states can serve as decarceration roadmaps for other states.

Related to: Incarceration

This report examines the experience of five states – Connecticut, Michigan, Mississippi, Rhode Island, and South Carolina – that have achieved prison population reductions of 14-25%. This produced a cumulative total of 23,646 fewer people in prison with no adverse effects on public safety.

Executive Summary

From 1980 until its peak in 2009, the total federal and state prison population of the United States climbed from about 330,000 to more than 1.6 million – a nearly 400% increase – while the total general population of the country grew by only 36%, and the crime rate fell by 42%.1 The catalyst of this prison expansion was policy changes that prioritized “getting tough” on crime.

The national prison population began a gradual descent after 2009, lessening by nearly 113,000 (6%) from 2009 through 2016. Several factors contributed to this decline: ongoing decreases in crime rates leading to fewer felony convictions; scaling back “war on drugs” policies; increased interest in evidence-based approaches to sentencing and reentry; and growing concerns about the fiscal cost of corrections and its impact on other state priorities. The state of California alone was responsible for 36% of the overall population decline, a function of a 2011 U.S. Supreme Court ruling declaring its overcrowded prison system to be unconstitutional and subsequent legislative responses to reduce the use of state incarceration.

Despite the decline, the overall pace of change is quite modest. A recent analysis documents that at the rate of change from 2009 to 2016 it will take 75 years to reduce the prison population by half. And while 42 states have experienced declines from their peak prison populations, 20 of these declines are less than 5%, while 8 states are still experiencing rising populations.2

To aid policymakers and criminal justice officials in achieving substantial prison population reductions, this report examines the experience of five states – Connecticut, Michigan, Mississippi, Rhode Island, and South Carolina – that have achieved prison population reductions of 14-25%. This produced a cumulative total of 23,646 fewer people in prison with no adverse effects on public safety. (While a handful of other states have also experienced significant population reductions – including California, New York, and New Jersey – these have been examined in other publications, and so are not addressed here.3

The five states highlighted in this report are geographically and politically diverse and have all enacted a range of shifts in policy and practice to produce these outcomes. All five were engaged in the Justice Reinvestment Initiative process, spearheaded by the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Council on State Governments, which was designed to work with stakeholders to respond to the driving forces of prison expansion in each state and to develop strategies for change in policy and practice.

This report seeks to inform stakeholders in other states of the range of policy options available to them for significantly reducing their prison population. While we provide some assessment of the political environment which contributed to these changes, we do not go into great detail in this area since stakeholders will need to make their own determinations of strategy based on the particularities of their state. We note, though, that the leaders of reform varied among states, and emerged among governors, legislators, criminal justice officials, and advocacy organizations, often benefiting from media coverage and editorial support.

The prison population reductions in these five states were achieved through data-driven policy reforms that pursued bipartisan consensus. Changes were advanced in the areas of risk and needs assessment, community supervision, alternatives to incarceration, sentencing and sanctions, prison release mechanisms, prisoner reentry and community reintegration.

Prison Population Reductions in the Five States

Five key strategies and practices that were employed in these states are summarized below, followed by extensive reviews for each of the five states.

Five Key Strategies and Practices that Reduced Prison Populations

1. Measures to Get Justice Reforms Underway and Maintain Momentum

  • High-profile leadership, bipartisanship and inter-branch collaboration (all 5 states).
  • Leveraging outside technical assistance and research findings on evidence-based practices (all 5 states).
  • Community engagement as a foundation of successful reentry and community reintegration (CT, MI, RI).
  • Pilots or staged implementation as innovation incubators (CT, MI).

2. Decreased Prison Admissions via Fewer New Prison Commitments

  • Crime reduction helped in all 5 states – but reduced crime is no guarantee of less imprisonment.
  • Reductions in criminal penalties or adjusting penalties according to seriousness (all 5 states).
  • Elimination of various mandatory minimum sentences, sometimes retroactively (CT, MI, RI, SC).
  • Creation or expansion of specialty courts and/or other alternatives to incarceration (CT, MI, MS, SC).
  • Modifications of responses to at-risk youth to disrupt school-to-prison pipeline (CT, SC).

3. Decreased Prison Admissions via Reduced Incarceration for Failure on Community Supervision

  • Implementation of graduated intermediate sanctions for non-criminal violations (CT, MI, MS, SC).
  • Engagement with community service providers and employers before release from prison (CT, MI, RI).
  • State and local collaboration regarding case management and supervision (CT, MI, RI).
  • Greater focus on intermediate outcomes (CT, MI, RI).
  • Imposition of shorter terms of community supervision (MS, RI, SC).

4. Increased Prison Releases via Increasing the Feasibility and/or Efficiency Of Release

  • Incorporation of dynamic risk and needs assessment into justice processes (all 5 states).
  • Inclusion of releasing authorities in planning/implementation (CT, MI, RI, SC).
  • Expanded initiatives to overcome barriers to the feasibility of release (CT, MI, RI, SC).
  • Conditional release approval earlier in the process before eligibility for release (CT, MI, RI).
  • Feedback to releasing authorities regarding outcomes to build trust in reentry (CT, MI, RI).
  • Centralized reentry planning, trained specialists, and a goal of release at first opportunity (CT, MI, MS).
  • Simplified and/or expedited release processing especially when backlogs in processing (CT, MI, RI).

5. Increased Prison Releases via Requiring Less Time Served Before Eligibility for Release

  • Allowance or expansion of sentence credits through a variety of measures (CT, MS, RI, SC).
  • Reduction of criminal penalties even though still prison-bound (CT, MI, SC).
  • Modifications to sentence enhancements for aggravating factors (MS, SC).
  • Reductions in time served prior to eligibility for repeat paroles after revocation (MI, MS).

Lessons Learned

Even with the population reductions achieved in these states, they continue to have prison populations that average more than three times those of 1980. Most of these jurisdictions expect to make additional gains based on current trends and justice reforms, but much of the changes enacted to date are experiencing diminishing returns and the next layer of effort will be even more challenging.

To advance decarceration further these and other jurisdictions will need to heed six lessons that we’ve learned from the states that have been successful in achieving effective and sustainable prison population reduction reforms:

  • Adequate funding is critical to achieving reforms: Acquiring supplemental funding for implementation was a commonly reported obstacle to compliance with statutory requirements enacted in the state reforms. Mandates without sufficient dollars for implementation inevitably meant that some reforms were delayed, failed to achieve the full benefits, or were never implemented.
  • Projected cost savings are difficult to achieve and actual savings are often overstated: Projections of the anticipated impact of reforms were occasionally off-the-mark. This was especially true of forecasts regarding expected cost savings, in part because of either faulty assumptions or overly optimistic projections of the benefits, but also because of offsetting cost increases in other areas that were either missed or unanticipated when calculating presumed impact – such as escalating prison health care costs.
  • It is critical to target specific goals such as reduction of racial disparity: Explicit attention and goal setting must be focused on problems meant to be impacted by justice reform, as evidenced by only modest progress in these states on alleviating racial disparity (and primarily as a by-product of the reforms rather than because of directly addressing the problem). A couple of the states are now targeting the lessening of racial disparity as a new goal.
  • The promise of Justice Reinvestment needs to be re-examined and augmented with other achievable and significant goals: The original concept of Justice Reinvestment referred to the goal of routing back into distressed communities the savings generated by closing prisons to address the precursors to crime and help neighborhoods recover from overuse of incarceration by financing housing, health care, education, and jobs. While most of these states have been successful in transferring resources within the justice system from prisons to community supervision, the goal of achieving broader redistribution of resources remains.
  • Broad reforms require additional focus on issues beyond prison population reduction: Overcoming barriers to enable sustained or deeper prison population reductions include the need for:
    • Post-incarceration employment solutions – still a struggling metric critical to reentry success.
    • Release and reentry solutions for more serious or higher risk cases – typically excluded from reforms.
    • Adequate community funding solutions – a poor stepchild compared to state-level reforms.
    • Rigorous monitoring and evaluation of justice reform implementation to propel change.

1.

The national crime rate declined consistently throughout the 37-year period, except for a gradual uptick of 17% between 1985 and 1991 (during which the rate remained lower than in 1980).

2.

Nazgol Ghandnoosh, (March 2018). Can We Wait 75 Years to Cut the Prison Population in Half? The Sentencing Project.

3.

The handful of other states that have also experienced similar reductions since their peak populations includes: California, Alaska, Colorado, Hawaii, Indiana, New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts, and Vermont. Examples of the research and media attention that some of the larger states have already received include the following: Fewer prisoners, less crime: A tale of three states; California, New York & New Jersey crime rates and prisoners plunge; How three states are beating the prison population boom; The mass incarceration problem in America; Overcrowding and overuse of imprisonment in the United States.

The national crime rate declined consistently throughout the 37-year period, except for a gradual uptick of 17% between 1985 and 1991 (during which the rate remained lower than in 1980).
Nazgol Ghandnoosh, (March 2018). Can We Wait 75 Years to Cut the Prison Population in Half? The Sentencing Project.
The handful of other states that have also experienced similar reductions since their peak populations includes: California, Alaska, Colorado, Hawaii, Indiana, New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts, and Vermont. Examples of the research and media attention that some of the larger states have already received include the following: Fewer prisoners, less crime: A tale of three states; California, New York & New Jersey crime rates and prisoners plunge; How three states are beating the prison population boom; The mass incarceration problem in America; Overcrowding and overuse of imprisonment in the United States.

Related Topics

About the Authors

  • Dennis Schrantz

    External

  • Stephen DeBor

    External

  • Marc Mauer

    Senior Advisor

    Marc Mauer is the former executive director of The Sentencing Project and one of the country’s leading experts on sentencing policy, race and the criminal justice system.

    Read more about Marc

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