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Michael Haugen | June 24, 2015
In a new column published yesterday in the Washington Times, Adam Gelb and Craig Prins, of the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Public Safety Performance Project, state that with 40 years’ worth of evidence across the country, we must confront a simple fact: “The United States has built too many prisons.”
According to Gelb and Prins:
“After nearly 40 years of uninterrupted prison growth that put one in 100 adults behind bars, a wave of state reforms over the past several years has reduced the incarceration rate while the crime rate has continued to fall. These tandem trends have convinced many Americans that locking more and more people up for longer and longer periods of time is neither the best nor only way to protect public safety.”
Indeed. As an example, two such states who passed systemic reforms aimed at reducing incarceration rates while maintaining public safety are southern red states like Texas and South Carolina.
In 2007, Texas faced the prospect of building capacity for 17,000 new prison beds to handle projected increases in its prison population, which would have cost billions. Instead, the legislature made a smaller $241 million investment towards evidence-based programs proven to reduce recidivism, and to divert certain offenders towards incarceration alternatives like drug courts.
The results were impressive. Since then, the state’s parole revocation rate has dropped 46 percent, and crime has fallen by 18 percent, allowing Texas to enjoy its lowest rate of crime since 1968. In addition, Texas has been able to close three prisons, partly as a result of an incarceration rate that fell by ten percent since reforms were enacted.
South Carolina has experienced similar successes. Since enacting their own reforms over the past six years, the state has lowered incarceration rates by 14%, while lowering crime rates by 17%.
Many other states have managed the same results, and are proving that lowering incarceration and crime rates, while preserving public safety, can all happen in concert.
Gelb and Prins go on to discuss that, while most states have aimed reforms at reserving expensive prison space for violent and repeat offenders, and diverting lower-risk, non-violent offenders towards alternatives, most states still lack an effective way of examining their prison populations to determine if reforms are having the desired effect:
“Most states cannot readily determine whether the new policies are working any better than those they replace. Beyond a simple count of prisoners, the typical state data report offers basic demographic information and breaks down how many inmates are serving time for violent, property, drug and other crimes.
These numbers are helpful, but by themselves they reveal only fragments of the information necessary to paint a meaningful portrait of inmate populations. For instance, an offender currently serving time for a relatively minor crime may have a string of prior violent convictions that make him a higher risk to society than someone in prison for a more serious offense not likely to be repeated.”
Gelb and Prins suggest that, in addition to this data, a better approach would consider things like an inmate’s current offense, prior record, and their risk of recidivism. This method, termed a prison composition index, would give interested parties a better view of how facilities are being used, and whether reforms are working.
This idea could be of significant import. Continuing to hold large numbers of lower-risk, non-violent offenders in the same population as more hardened, career criminals risks exposing them to a culture of criminality common in that population. This, in turn, makes the former more of a threat to public safety than when they were first put in detention.
Seeing as there are also social ills attendant with this practice—e.g. losing contact with family and employment opportunities—being able to better identify those offenders who would best qualify for community-based diversionary programs would not only benefit them and their families, but could yield even greater improvements in public safety, and saving taxpayer dollars, as well.
To read the entire Washington Times column, click here.
Photo: R Street Institute