Research has revealed that there is a right way and a wrong way to reduce the population of defendants and inmates who are securely confined: categorical releases are usually not the most effective approach, while targeted alternatives to incarceration for low-level offenders maintain the public safety while reducing unnecessary expenditures.

For instance, Fresno and King Counties in California are adopting GPS tracking to reduce the number of non-violent offenders in their jails. This approach ensures that only low-level offenders, who pose the least risk to the public safety, are given the opportunity to reenter society, even while monitored electronically by correction officials.

In Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, county officials are studying ways to identify low-level jail inmates and place those offenders into electronic monitoring and community service programs rather than house them in the county jail. County council members highlighted the importance of ensuring that only those offenders who do not pose “any threat or danger” are eligible for such alternatives.

In a few counties in New York, the judiciary is diverting certain 16 and 17 year olds—who are by law treated charged and tried as adults in that state for all crimes—into “adolescent diversion parts.” This program, targeted towards nonviolent and low-level offenders, usually those charged with shoplifting and burglary, works to rehabilitate the young offenders and involves community service and locally provided services. Offenders are only eligible after having been assessed with a risk screening instrument to ensure that their risk for recidivism is low enough to warrant diversion from traditional programming.

While these alternatives to traditional secure incarceration are often a more effective way to deal with some offenders, these options are often developed after budgetary stressors have made it clear that jail and prison populations cannot continue to grow.

Unfortunately, those same budgetary stressors can also lead to the wrong way to reduce prison and jail populations.

In Illinois, budget proposals include a plan to close prisons and halfway houses without corresponding efforts to provide alternatives for low-level offenders. These closures—at a time when prisons are already overcrowded in that state (prison populations are at 144 percent of capacity, at last count)—were deemed necessary to find savings in the budget. But without reducing confined populations, prison closures will not provide savings as much as shift expenditures on confinement. In addition, the state is looking to cut drug treatment and job training—two important tools for reducing recidivism.

Prison closures can have a dramatic effect on state budgets, providing efficiencies and cost savings—but only when prison populations are low enough or have been decreased that the number of empty beds warrants the closures. For instance, juvenile lockup populations are low enough in Illinois, and alternatives to secure confinement are prevalent enough, to make closing juvenile facilities a positive step forward for the state—saving money and streamlining the system. Florida too has empty prison beds that make it possible to close several prisons across the state, easing the burden on Florida taxpayers.

There is a right way and a wrong way to go about reducing jail and prison populations. Targeted alternatives can save millions while continuing to maintain public safety, and can lead to prison closures as empty prison beds rack up. Categorical release and prison closures without providing for more efficient inmate placement can have serious detrimental effects on both budgets and safe communities.