With more than two million Americans behind prison and jail bars on any given day, many state leaders have been struggling with how to reduce that total while maintaining public safety.
The Urban Institute released on Wednesday a new tool allowing users to project prison populations state-by-state by experimenting with different variables.
In partnership with the institute, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) simultaneously issued “blueprints” that 24 states could use to cut their inmate totals by 50 percent in the coming years. The ACLU will release similar plans for the other states later.
Imprisonment is mainly a state issue, although the federal government also maintains a large prison system.
The Urban Institute notes that “every state has its own unique set of factors and challenges that contribute to mass incarceration,” adding that “there is no one-size-fits-all national solution for reducing the total number of people in prison.”
The institute offers a few examples. In Arizona, reducing admissions for drug offenses by 50 percent would lead to an 11.7 percent decrease in the state’s prison population by 2025.
Doing the same thing in California would lead to only a 1.5 percent decline in inmate numbers in the next seven years.
Much of the discussion in recent years about reducing mass incarceration has focused on non-violent crimes.
The institute says that violent offenses are major drivers of states’ prison populations, and those populations can’t be substantially reduced without dealing with such offenses.
In Minnesota, cutting the length of prison terms for violent offenses in half would reduce the population nearly 25 percent by 2025. A similar reduction for property-crime offenses would lead only to a 5 percent decrease.
Large reductions in a state’s prison population would produce “significant savings in correctional spending, which frees up resources for investment in other public safety priorities such as crime prevention,” the institute says.
Conversely, increasing prison admissions for drug offenses by 50 percent would add $83.7 million to Illinois’ correctional budget, and $150.1 million to Texas’, the institute says.
The institute cautions that reducing the prison population does little to reduce the proportion of the prison population made up of people of color, and in some cases would worsen the racial disparities in incarceration.
As of 2016, there were 487,300 blacks, 440,200 whites and 339,600 Hispanics in state prisons, says the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. The totals for African Americans and Hispanics far exceeded their proportion of the national population.
The ACLU says that its blueprints based on the Urban Institute’s new tool are the “first-ever analysis of its kind and will serve as a tool for activists, advocates and policymakers to push for transformational change to the criminal justice system.”
Each blueprint analyzes who is being sent to jail and prison, racial disparities that are present, what drives people into the justice system, how long people spend behind bars, and why people are imprisoned for so long.
Among examples the ACLU offers:
- In Louisiana, more than one-third of new prison admissions in 2016 were were convicted of property offenses, and thirty percent of admissions were for drug offenses. Louisiana, which already has passed legislation aimed at cutting prison numbers, could also reclassify drug and many property offenses as misdemeanors rather than felonies.
- In Pennsylvania, the number of people entering prison for parole violations grew by 56.5 percent between 2006 and 2016. That state could focus on reforms that would drive down the number of people sent to prison due to violations of probation supervision.
The material issued on Wednesday differs from a 50-state report on public safety put out this year by the Council of State Governments Justice Center, which was billed as including “tools and strategies to help states reduce crime, recidivism, and costs.”
That report presented more than 300 “data visualizations” comparing crime, recidivism and correctional practices across all 50 states.
Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington bureau chief of The Crime Report. He welcomes comments from readers.