NEW YORK – Bipartisan reforms in historically “tough on crime” states have significantly reduced incarceration rates, saved taxpayers billions of dollars, lowered crime rates and should be emulated nationwide, according to a new report released today by the American Civil Liberties Union.
The report, “Smart Reform is Possible: States Reducing Incarceration Rates and Costs While Protecting Communities,” underscores the need for states to enact cost-effective and evidence-based policies that save states money and combat the nation’s addiction to incarceration. The nation’s pre-trial, sentencing and parole systems have made the U.S. the largest incarcerator in the world, hitting communities of color the hardest.
One in 99 adults is living behind bars in the U.S., and though whites commit crimes at comparable rates and make up a majority of the country’s population, 60 percent of prison inmates are people of color.
"The ACLU has been joined in recent years by legislators and advocates from across the political spectrum in recognizing that mass incarceration is not necessary to protect public safety," says Vanita Gupta, deputy legal director of the ACLU. "These recent reforms in traditionally 'tough on crime' states demonstrate that there are ways to create more rational and effective criminal justice systems that better protect our communities."
The ACLU’s report highlights six states – Texas, Mississippi, Kansas, South Carolina, Kentucky and Ohio – that have passed significant bipartisan reforms that promote alternatives to incarceration. It documents ongoing reform efforts in four more states – California, Louisiana, Maryland, and Indiana. The report also identifies national criminal justice trends and offers selected recommended reforms that lawmakers can enact to reduce states’ incarceration rates and corrections budgets while keeping communities safe, including a reduced reliance on pre-trial detention, lower penalties for drug offenses and eliminating mandatory minimum sentences.
“These reforms have always made economic sense. The costs of using incarceration as an option of first - rather than last - resort far outweighs any benefit to public safety,” said Inimai Chettiar, advocacy and policy counsel for the ACLU. “In the face of mounting budget shortfalls, some of our lawmakers are creating more cost-effective criminal justice regimes that still protect public safety. The rest of the country should follow suit.”
In Texas, legislation over the last decade has mandated probation rather than prison time for low-level possession of many drugs, invested in drug treatment programs for people on parole or probation and created non-prison sanctions for individuals committing technical parole violations that are not new crimes. The result has been a drop in the state’s crime rate to a level not seen since 1973, an incarceration rate that has stabilized since 2007 and a savings of more than $2 billion.
Similarly, Kansas passed laws in recent years mandating drug treatment rather than prison for some non-violent drug offenses, rewarding counties for reducing parole and probation revocations and expanding earned credits for education and treatment programs. Crime rates in the state dropped 18 percent between 2003 and 2009, the state’s incarcerated population declined 15 percent during the same period and the state is projected to save well over $100 million by the end of 2012.
In Mississippi, state legislators voted in 2008 to partially repeal its truth-in-sentencing law – one of the harshest in the nation – and expand parole eligibility for non-violent offenses. The state legislature also expanded earned time credits for prisoners. The result: a 22 percent reduction in the state’s incarcerated population and a projected savings of nearly half a billion dollars. Meanwhile, crime rates in Mississippi have dropped and now stand at their lowest levels since 1984.