Policy Documents

Research & Commentary: State Prison Reforms

Elizabeth Henderson –
July 1, 2011

Many states are considering sweeping prison reforms to alleviate fiscal problems and rising prison costs. Though the nation’s overcrowded prison systems have caused concern for decades, legislators are finally looking at necessary reforms. In 2010 alone, states spent $68 billion on correctional department activities.

Opponents of these reforms often point to Philadelphia’s court-ordered prison cap in 1990. Only the most dangerous murderers and rapists were admitted into the system once it reached capacity, leaving many convicted criminals on the city’s streets. A more effective reform model is that of Texas, which used proven community corrections approaches such as drug courts to reduce the state’s prison population while cutting the crime rate and government spending.

Ohio is considering cost-cutting legislation aimed at reducing prison sentences and recidivism, measures projected to save as much as a billion dollars. The bill would mandate judicial justification for stiffer sentences and offer sentencing alternatives, early release, and additional parole options. It also would reduce punishments for some drug-related charges and provide more job training and community-based programs as sentencing alternatives for nonviolent, first-time offenders. The reasoning behind these modifications is that lengthy sentences and tough-on-crime statutes such as “three strikes” laws haven’t proven effective at deterring crime and are extremely expensive.

Many other states are working on similar reforms. Early release programs, for instance, are widely considered both safe and cost-effective. The programs are meant to reduce recidivism by facilitating societal reentry for former inmates; release is often conditional on completion of in-prison education, vocational, or treatment programs. Courts also could provide released inmates with certificates of employability, which would lessen liability for potential employers.

The following documents provide additional information about state prison reforms.

The Conservative Case for Reform
Right on Crime is a project aimed at making free-market reforms to the nation’s prison systems in order to improve efficiency and cost-effectiveness and alleviate social concerns.

How the Prisons Hold Us Captive
Budget & Tax News reports on runaway prison costs in California exacerbating the state’s budget problems: “Between 1998 and 2009, [the Department of Corrections’] budget almost tripled, reaching $10.3 billion in the latter year—even though the number of people in prison had increased only 9 percent during the period, according to the Department’s own figures.”

What Is Early Release?
The John Howard Association, which promotes “public safety through cost-effective prison reform,” describes several early release programs.

Research & Commentary: Contracting Out Prison Services
This Heartland Institute Research & Commentary documents how states can save money by contracting out prison services to the private sector: “Louisiana found private prisons have an 11 to 13 percent lower operating cost, fewer critical incidents with the prisoner population, and better overall discipline.”

Best Prison Reform: Privatization
Geoffrey Segal, director of privatization and government reform at Reason Foundation, exposes some of the biggest ethical and economic failures of the California prison system. He advocates privatization to improve accountability.

Shrink the Prisons
This article contends conservatives trying to be tough on crime often promote ineffective and costly statutes such as three-strikes laws.

Time Is Right for State Prison Reform
This article describes how the economic downturn has impelled prison reform in states such as Indiana.

Prison Reform: A Smart Way for States to Save Money and Lives
The Washington Post explains that states with decreasing crime rates often have simultaneous decreases in their prison populations, contrary to popular belief.

For further information on this subject, visit the Budget & Tax News Web site at www.budgetandtax-news.org, The Heartland Institute’s Web site at www.heartland.org, or PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database, at www.policybot.org.

Nothing in this message is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. If you have any questions about this issue or the Heartland Web site, contact Government Relations Director John Nothdurft at 312/377-4000 or jnothdurft@heartland.org.