The current economic situation is causing many states to face difficult budget choices. Policymakers across the country are realizing that the expense of incarcerating so many people—states spent $52 billion on corrections in FY2008—is reducing resources available for investments in social structures, like education and healthcare. As a result, many states are developing new and innovative ways to trim their prison populations, reduce the likelihood that a released person will commit a new offense and lower revocation rates so fewer people return to prison once released.
Our current justice system imprisons many people who could have been held accountable (and, if necessary, safely supervised) in the community. Many people with addictions or mental illness do not have access to community-based treatment and may be more likely to end up behind bars because of offenses related to these illnesses. Others are sent back to prison for breaking one of the rules of parole, even though they did not commit a new offense. And with mandatory sentences like “three strikes” laws, judges are forced to send many people to prison even though community-based sanctions may be more appropriate, or give longer prison sentences than they would if there were more judicial discretion.
Contributing to the total number of people incarcerated is the reluctance of parole boards to grant parole to all people who are eligible. Parole boards often face public scrutiny if someone they release commits a new offense. To avoid public backlash, some parole boards may be overly-conservative in deciding whether to release someone to community-supervision, keeping imprisoned many people who have served considerable time, are low-risk for recidivating, and might benefit more from community-based supervision and support. With the increased availability of effective methods of identifying candidates for early release from prison, as well as for placement in the community rather than prison at sentencing, public safety can be maintained and even improved while incarcerating fewer people. In addition, treatment has repeatedly been shown to be more effective than incarceration at promoting public safety. Treatment delivered in the community is more cost-effective and beneficial than treatment in prison.
In the long-term, policymakers need to send fewer people to prison to begin with; however, if done appropriately, releasing more people from prison can be a cost-saving public safety strategy that can be implemented immediately. This brief provides information to help policymakers make smart decisions around prison reductions that will result in stronger and safer communities.