Policy Analysis | April 2011

State Corrections Reforms

Jeremy Williams

For a number of years, state prison populations have been growing at alarming rates and, correspondingly, so have state corrections budgets. A recent report by the Pew Center on the States estimates that state corrections spending has quadrupled nationwide over the past 20 years, making it the second fastest growing budget item for states, behind Medicaid. In addition, the report noted that approximately 40 percent of released inmates return to prison within three years of release. According to the 2010 Southern Legislative Conference (SLC) Adult Correctional Systems Comparative Data Report, between 2000 and 2010, the number of inmates in the region, including those based in county and local jails, increased from 537,135 to 632,651, a 17.8 percent increase. During that time, some SLC states, such as West Virginia, saw as high as 67 percent increases. In addition, according to an assessment done by the state Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety, the entire West Virginia prison population is expected to increase by another 45 percent by 2020, making it the fastest growing prison population in the country. The state has made some progress in addressing violent offenses, such as driving under the influence (DUI), through legislation in 2008 (SB535) to reduce driver's license suspension times from 30 to 15 days for first time DUI offenders, but requiring those drivers to install an ignition interlock, a device that prevents the vehicle from starting if alcohol is detected when the driver breathes into it. The legislation also removed the mandatory 24-hour lockup law for offenders with lower blood alcohol contents (BAC) and created harsher penalties for drivers with extremely high BAC. This, along with other measures, has almost cut the percentage of inmates sentenced for DUI convictions by one-half in a few years. However, the overall percentage of inmates in the state convicted for nonviolent crimes, including parole violators and illegal drug users, continues to rise.

Other states have undertaken more dramatic reforms in an effort to reduce inmate populations and corrections costs. The Council of State Governments' Justice Center has been working with states throughout the nation, including Oklahoma, North Carolina and Texas, to implement Justice Reinvestment strategies aimed mainly at lowering recidivism rates. Texas, for instance, experienced an 18 percent increase in probation revocation from 1997 to 2006, even though the total number of persons under supervision was declining. Rather than spending huge amounts of state funds to begin building new prisons, the Texas Legislature enacted criminal justice legislation in 2007 to expand treatment and diversion programs, such as increasing the number of beds in residential substance abuse program, and to enhance probation and parole policies, such as establishing caseload limits for probation and parole officers. The approximate $241 million investment is projected to eliminate the prison bed shortfall in the state by 2012. Since the reinvestment cost was significantly less than the Texas Department of Criminal Justice original budget request for additional prison capacity, the state saved about $210 million the first biennium alone.

Further revamps are being considered by the state this year as well. Included in the bills filed for the 2011 biennium is legislation (HB3386) that would promote the use of "shock probation," or limited prison time for low-level probation violators. Rather than sending violators to prison for the remainder of their sentence, which can be years, oftentimes for a minor violation, probationers are imprisoned for only a limited amount of time, with the goal of dissuading them from further violations. The legislation also would allow consideration for early release of some critically ill inmates, which would dramatically reduce healthcare costs to the Department of Corrections. The legislation could save the state nearly $13.5 million in just two years.

The Alabama Legislature currently is considering a host of sentencing and corrections reform bills aimed at reducing the size of the state prison population and possibly saving the state upwards of $106 million in prison costs within the first five years. According to the Alabama Public Safety and Sentencing Coalition, which is a group of legislators, judges, attorneys and law enforcement personnel, the legislation would prompt the state to adopt new sentencing approaches aimed at keeping nonviolent offenders, including drug users, out of prison and redirecting them into rehabilitation programs. The legislation also would create stricter supervision standards for probationers and parolees. Some projections estimate a drop of 5,000 in the prison population within five years. At least two of these bills have been approved by the state Senate Judiciary Committee, which is handling the legislation. One bill (SB145) would allow people convicted of minor drug offenses to get their driver's license back sooner, in order that they may participate in a rehabilitation program; the other (SB142) would allow probationers to move from supervised probation to less-costly unsupervised probation, provided they complete two-thirds of their sentence without any subsequent offenses. It also establishes certain responsibilities for the Board of Pardons and Paroles in assisting individuals with reentry into the community.

The Arkansas General Assembly passed a measure (SB750) during the 2011 session aimed at reducing prison sentence times for nonviolent offenders, by expanding alternative-sentencing programs as well as the use of drug courts. The legislation also restores 49 probation and parole officer positions in the state Department of Community Correction. While the estimated cost of the reform is approximately $9 million, some projections place the cost savings for the state at more than $875 million over 10 years.

The Florida Legislature currently is considering a bill (HB917) that would create a reentry program for nonviolent offenders, diverting them from long periods of incarceration, by requiring participation on community programs with strict eligibility criteria. The state currently has more than 101,000 inmates and an annual corrections budget of over $2.4 billion. Newly elected Governor Rick Scott also has pledged to reform the state prison system, and has proposed allocating more funds to help inmates fight drug and alcohol abuse, as well as improve mental health services and literacy initiatives. Scott also has proposed moving approximately 2,000 inmates from state-run prisons into privately run facilities, claiming to save as much as $135 million in the first year alone. The state Department of Corrections, under a new director, also is considering releasing 10,000 inmates for good behavior.

The Kentucky Legislature passed a landmark corrects reform bill (HB463) during its 2011 session, which is anticipated to reduce the commonwealth's prison population by revamping sentencing laws for some low-risk and violent offenders. The legislation, which is estimated to save the commonwealth approximately $422 million over the next 10 years, will improve probation and parole supervision, while providing mechanisms for diverting offenders into community programs.

The Louisiana Legislature may consider a bill (HB138) during its upcoming 2011 regular session that would make some elderly inmates (over the age of 60) eligible for parole, as long as they have served 10 years for a nonviolent, non-sex-related crime. According to a 2006 SLC report, the elderly inmate population is one of the fastest growing and most expensive cohorts in prison systems today.

States will continue to seek new and innovative ways to address the deluge of inmates entering and reentering the prison system. Many states are already seeing remarkable results from such reforms, yielding smaller prison populations, lower corrections budgets and inevitably safer communities.