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September 5, 2018

"Decarceration Strategies: How 5 States Achieved Substantial Prison Population Reductions"

The title of this post is the title of this new 50-page report by The Sentencing Project. Here is the start of its executive summary:

From 1980 until its peak in 2009, the total federal and state prison population of the United States climbed from about 330,000 to more than 1.6 million — a nearly 400% increase  — while the total general population of the country grew by only 36%, and the crime rate fell by 42%.  The catalyst of this prison expansion was policy changes that prioritized “getting tough” on crime. 

The national prison population began a gradual descent after 2009, lessening by nearly 113,000 (6%) from 2009 through 2016.  Several factors contributed to this decline: ongoing decreases in crime rates leading to fewer felony convictions; scaling back “war on drugs” policies; increased interest in evidence-based approaches to sentencing and reentry; and growing concerns about the fiscal cost of corrections and its impact on other state priorities.  The state of California alone was responsible for 36% of the overall population decline, a function of a 2011 U.S. Supreme Court ruling declaring its overcrowded prison system to be unconstitutional and subsequent legislative responses to reduce the use of state incarceration.

Despite the decline, the overall pace of change is quite modest.  A recent analysis documents that at the rate of change from 2009 to 2016 it will take 75 years to reduce the prison population by half.  And while 42 states have experienced declines from their peak prison populations, 20 of these declines are less than 5%, while 8 states are still experiencing rising populations.

To aid policymakers and criminal justice officials in achieving substantial prison population reductions, this report examines the experience of five states – Connecticut, Michigan, Mississippi, Rhode Island, and South Carolina — that have achieved prison population reductions of 14-25%.  This produced a cumulative total of 23,646 fewer people in prison with no adverse effects on public safety. (While a handful of other states have also experienced significant population reductions — including California, New York, and New Jersey —  these have been examined in other publications, and so are not addressed here.

The five states highlighted in this report are geographically and politically diverse and have all enacted a range of shifts in policy and practice to produce these outcomes.  All five were engaged in the Justice Reinvestment Initiative process, spearheaded by the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Council on State Governments, which was designed to work with stakeholders to respond to the driving forces of prison expansion in each state and to develop strategies for change in policy and practice.

This report seeks to inform stakeholders in other states of the range of policy options available to them for significantly reducing their prison population.  While we provide some assessment of the political environment which contributed to these changes, we do not go into great detail in this area since stakeholders will need to make their own determinations of strategy based on the particularities of their state.  We note, though, that the leaders of reform varied among states, and emerged among governors, legislators, criminal justice officials, and advocacy organizations, often benefiting from media coverage and editorial support.

The prison population reductions in these five states were achieved through data-driven policy reforms that pursued bipartisan consensus.  Changes were advanced in the areas of risk and needs assessment, community supervision, alternatives to incarceration, sentencing and sanctions, prison release mechanisms, prisoner reentry and community reintegration.

Five key strategies and practices that were employed in these states are summarized below, followed by extensive reviews for each of the five states.

September 5, 2018 at 03:31 PM | Permalink

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