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Shrinking Budgets Force States to Cut Corrections Spending

In a July 2009 report funded by the Public Safety Performance Project of the Pew Center on the States, author Christine S. Scott-Hayward examines how shrinking budgets are impacting state corrections policies and practices.

The story is in the numbers, and the numbers are staggering. More than one out of every 100 adults in the United States is in prison or jail – 2.3 million in all. One out of every 31 adults is under correctional supervision of some kind – a total of 7.3 million people, including more than five million on probation and parole.

Between 1988 and 2008, state spending on corrections increased four-fold. With total corrections system expenditures exceeding $50 billion nationally, one in every 15 state general fund dollars is now spent on corrections. However, with 43 states facing a combined budget shortfall of more than $100 billion in fiscal year 2009, many are doing the un-thinkable: making cuts to their corrections budgets.

Indeed, of the 33 states that responded to the Pew Center survey, at least 22 had made such cuts. The Pew Center report examined the nature of those budget reductions and divided them into three categories – decreases in operational costs, strategies for reducing recidivism, and reforms in release policies.

Efforts to reduce operational costs took various forms. Eight states targeted healthcare (medical, mental health or dental) for decreases. Five states reduced the food services provided to prisoners. The most common cost-cutting measures, however, were in the areas of personnel savings, downsizing or eliminating programs, and closing prisons or delaying in opening new ones.

For example, at least 28 states had reduced staff, instituted hiring freezes, cut salaries or benefits and/or eliminated pay increases. Readers should note that personnel includes security as well as administrative staff. In some cases, the former are protected from job losses while the latter are targeted for downsizing.

With more than five million people under some form of post-release supervision, many states are seeking ways to address the costs associated with high rates of recidivism among this population. Significantly, more than one-third of prison admissions are the result of technical parole violations – such as failure to attend meetings with a parole officer or failing a drug test.

States are increasingly turning to graduated responses to such violations that include a set of options short of re-incarceration. State officials are also developing or expanding reentry planning and services, recognizing that by helping offenders deal with the challenges they will face upon release, such as housing and employment, such programs can help save money in the long run.

In the final analysis, because staffing typically accounts for 75-80% of prison budgets, real savings will only occur when states become willing to make policy changes that impact the number of people entering prison and how long they stay there, which in turn affects the number of people employed. Some states have already begun doing this, increasing the amount of good time or earned time available to prisoners and expanding the availability of parole. The other alternative, which many states have also implemented, is closing smaller, less efficient prisons and instead warehousing prisoners in more modern prisons in larger numbers that require lower staffing levels.

The silver lining of the current economic crisis is that it has forced states, through financial necessity, to reexamine their correctional priorities and make changes that they otherwise would not have considered – such as prison closures, investments in reentry programs and reductions in their prison populations. Whether the prison population actually goes down nationally remains to be seen.

Source: The Fiscal Crisis in Corrections: Rethinking Policies and Practices, Vera Institute of Justice, 2009

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