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Tight Budgets Push States to Consider Alternatives to Incarceration

In January 2012, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, together with the American Civil Liberties Union, released a report analyzing the use of official state estimates of the savings or costs of proposed legislation, specifically in the arena of criminal justice reforms; the report advocates the position that, by improving these estimates, known as "fiscal notes," states can help legislators better allocate scarce budgetary resources.

The authors analyzed the fiscal notes written by states for significant adult sentencing and corrections bills enacted in the past three years --a total of over 600 bills in 49 states --and found that, while certain practices adopted by some states are particularly useful in conveying information to lawmakers and the public, other practices are clearly unhelpful and reduce the chances of enactment. The latter include the failure to write any fiscal notes at all, a deficiency which affected about 40 percent of all the bills; the failure by the majority of states to examine fiscal impacts beyond a year or two, leaving legislators unaware of potential long-term benefits of proposed reforms, and a failure by some states to ensure the credibility of fiscal notes.

The authors compile a list of "best practices." Specifically, they advocate that all criminal justice notes should be consistent, properly researched, detailed, and accessible. They acknowledge that, in order to achieve these best practices, many states may need to invest more resources in their fiscal note process (for example, by hiring more professional research staff). At the same time, they emphasize that the costs associated with these additional resources "are much lower than the costs of enacting or maintaining expensive criminal justice policies that over-spend on prisons, weaken a state's economy, and damage its social fabric."

More interesting (to this writer) than the report's sometimes dry discussion about how states can improve their fiscal note process was the sales pitch which motivated that discussion: the authors want to sell the idea that criminal justice reforms can save money without sacrificing public safety.

The authors explain that get-tough-on-crime laws swept the nation in the 1980s and 1990s, and that those laws lacked research proving their effectiveness at reducing crime or rehabilitating offenders. The result: since 1980, the nation's imprisonment rate has more than tripled. Citing a statistic which should give everyone pause, the authors note that the U.S., with just five percent of the world's entire population, holds nearly one-fourth of its incarcerated population.

The authors make the case that the rapid growth in prison spending has left less funding available for education, health care and other state priorities. They then point out that cost-saving alternatives are available; that states are beginning to consider and experiment with these alternatives; and that in states (such as Texas, Kansas, Kentucky, and South Carolina) that have already enacted reforms based on these alternatives, "crime rates have remained at historically low levels or declined."

The alternatives to incarceration include offering addiction treatment instead of prison to drug offenders, as well as allowing for immediate and predictable sanctions (short of automatic re-incarceration) for technical parole violations. Citing another statistic which should give policy-makers pause, the authors note that one-third of state prison admissions in recent years have consisted of such technical parole violators, rather than individuals who committed new crimes.

The authors argue that the foregoing alternatives "are more effective in reducing recidivism than putting people back in prison."

Source: Michael Leachman, Inimai M. Chettiar, and Benjamin Geare, Improving Budget Analysis of state Criminal Justice Reforms: A Strategy for Better outcomes and Saving Money, Jan. 11, 2012.

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