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February 25, 2016

"Does Smarter Sentencing Equal Lower Prison Numbers?"

The title of this post is the headline of this lengthy new piece by Adam Wisnieski at The Crime Report, which is largely a report on what various experts are saying about the impact of modern sentencing reforms on prison populations.  I recommend the piece in full, and here are some excerpts (with a few of the original's links preserved):

Most analysts agree that states have been much further ahead than the feds on these issues.  For the past year, members of Congress have been debating a variety of bills that would make changes to federal sentencing guidelines similar to some of the revisions already underway at the state level.  The proposed Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act has received widespread bipartisan support — but is now stalled by the resurgence of concerns that relaxing punishment standards would lead to an increase in crime.

There’s no shortage of voices about what type of impact that bill would have.  But few seem to look to states for lessons, regardless of the well-worn phrase about them being “laboratories of democracy.”  Have states been successful?  Experts contacted by The Crime Report had different views. 

Adam Gelb, director of The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Public Safety Performance Project said that the national conversation on criminal justice is undergoing a transformation. “We are really starting to see a culture shift in which policymakers are becoming eager to base decisions on data and evidence rather than emotion or ideology,” Gelb said in an interview. “There’s been a tremendous amount of progress but there’s still a long way to go.”

Other researchers disagree, saying there is more smoke than fire in state efforts.  Minor tweaks to sentencing policies, which they say is largely what states have done, have not worked to significantly impact the nation’s mass incarceration problem. “Most states have not made any progress,” says James Austin, who runs the Washington, D.C.- and California-based JFA Institute, a criminal-justice consulting firm. “Those that are making some progress, it’s been pretty miniscule.”

Michael Tonry, director of the Institute on Crime and Public Policy of the University of Minnesota argues the same thing.  In his new book, Sentencing Fragments: Penal Reform in America, 1975-2025, Tonry describes states’ approach to reducing prison population through minor changes to sentencing and release policies as “nibbling” around the edges of the problem.  “What’s being done is these little tiny tweaking around the edges, and then making big projections,” he said in an interview with The Crime Report. “That’s not how the world is going to change.”...

About 13 percent of our country’s prisoners are serving time in federal prisons. The other 87 percent, more than 1.3 million people according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, are in state prisons.

That number of state prisoners hasn’t changed dramatically in the last decade; it’s leveled off. The number of people in state prisons is about the same as it was ten years ago.  From 2004 to 2014, the state prison population went up from roughly 1.32 million to 1.35 million, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

That most recent number (1.35 million state prisoners in 2014) is down from its high water mark, 1.41 million in 2008.  Critics suspect the leveling off could be attributed to harsh sentences imposed in the 1980s and 1990s finally coming to an end. But defenders point to the nation’s decreased incarceration rate as real progress.  The nation’s adult incarceration rate, which includes offenders in not only state prisons, but federal prisons and local jails, dropped 10 percent from 2007 to 2014, from 1 in 100 to 1 in 111.  “The incarceration rate has declined steadily each year since 2008,” notes the most recent report on the correctional populations in the U.S. by the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Last week, The Sentencing Project released an analysis on how well states have handled the problem of growing prison populations. “Relatively modest,” the report concluded.  “While 39 states have experienced a decline since reaching their peak prison populations within the past 15 years, in most states this reduction has been relatively modest,” reads the report. “The overall pace of change, though, is quite modest given the scale of incarceration.”

Tonry says one reason why reforms in certain states haven’t achieved projected gains is that stakeholders like prosecutors, judges and parole boards are not invested in changing the system.  “The problem with tweaking things is they have to be implemented by somebody,” he said....

One state that has gotten a lot of press recently for figuring out how to successfully reform harsh sentencing laws is Georgia.  In 2011, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal signed a bill that modified mandatory minimum sentences on drug charges, gave judges more discretion in drug sentencing, raised the felony threshold for certain theft crimes.  Since the bill was signed, Georgia’s prison population has gone down every year, from 55,944 in 2011 to 52,949 in 2014, a slight decrease but a decrease nonetheless.

If that bill, along with another bill on juvenile justice in 2012, had not been passed, the state says its prison population would have gone up by 8 percent and cost $264 million more to expand capacity.  The policy change has saved the state millions, but according to a report last year by the state’s Council on Criminal Justice Reform, Georgia’s prison population is projected to go up every year over the next five years.

So at least for Georgia, success seems to be measured on figuring out how to slow the increase, but not to reverse the trend. There is reason for optimism, though. Despite those projections, the prion population has actually continued its downward trend — and policymakers haven’t given up. After initial reforms were passed in 2011, Georgia has passed reforms every year since 2011, something states like Kentucky haven’t done.   “Georgia is back year after year,” said Gelb. “That kind of reform-minded environment can have an impact well beyond specific changes to law and policy.”

February 25, 2016 at 03:24 PM | Permalink

Comments

Whats the guys name Sen Cotton, he needs to get a life. They are going to get out anyway. Its been showed that crack defendents released early, messed up less than those that done their full term.

To make improvements, more technical training needs to be done during their stay.
Welding, cnc - machining, journeyman classes in plumbing - electrical Hvac,.

If they come out no better off than they went in, (job wise), you may as well shoot some of these guys. In 2 weeks they are right back at it. Give them a diff way to earn a living.
Congress wastes barges full of money, have them try something that takes effort to manage, instead of storing people. Lets see, nope his shelf life hasnt arrived yet, back in the barrel. You guys get it.

Posted by: MidWestGuy | Feb 25, 2016 5:22:11 PM

Both Gelb and Austin are right, in their own way. What's been done so far is minimalist, but compared to the days when all crimjust bills reflexively increased penalties and decreased defendants' rights, the terms of debate have changed and there is reason for optimism.

In Texas, just a few years ago the Lege would pass dozens of new crimes and penalty "enhancements" every session. Now they pass just a few trivial ones, and have in recent years passed de-incarceration reforms affecting drug and property crimes. And more legislators than ever, from both parties, now believe the system must change.

Big ships turn slowly. We didn't get to mass incarceration overnight and it won't end overnight. But the declining incarceration rate is real, however you choose to spin it.

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Feb 29, 2016 1:56:27 PM

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