By Inimai M. Chettiar, Policy Counsel, and Vanita Gupta, Deputy Legal Director, at the American Civil Liberties Union. Ms. Gupta directs the ACLU’s Center for Justice and its Safe and Fair Initiative to End Overincarceration. Ms. Chettiar serves as national legislative counsel for the initiative and has published scholarshipon using economic analysis to promote social justice. They are primary authors of the ACLU’s new report, “Smart Reform is Possible: States Reducing Incarceration Rates and Costs While Protecting Communities.”
There isn’t an American who hasn’t felt the devastating effects of the Great Recession. And just when most of us thought it couldn’t get any worse, the S&P downgrade of the federal government’s Treasury debt last Friday sent shocks through the country and the world, increasing talk about a double-dip recession and creating sharp declines on Wall Street yesterday reminiscent of the 2008 market crash. A downgrade of state and municipality debts could also follow.
The scarcity of funds in American households and the resulting decline in government revenues have forced lawmakers to think twice before spending precious taxpayer dollars. Some states have enacted laws in the name of saving money that have been incredibly short sighted – like cutting funding for public and higher education or increasing financial burdens on the poor. These types of policies may save small amounts of money in the short run, but will have devastating effects on our children’s futures and prevent individuals on the margins from contributing to society.
Among all this economic tragedy, however, there is a silver lining. As detailed by a new ACLU report released today, several states have enacted cost-effective laws cutting their unnecessary overreliance and massive spending on prisons while continuing to protect the safety of our communities. This is especially good news considering that state and federal governments spend about $70 billion annually on prisons and corrections. Over the last 25 years, state corrections spending grew by 674 percent, outpacing the growth of other government expenditures.
Our report, entitled Smart Reform is Possible: States Reducing Incarceration Rates and Costs While Protecting Public Safety, highlights six states - Texas, Mississippi, Kansas, South Carolina, Kentucky, and Ohio - that recently passed significant bipartisan reforms to reduce their prison populations and budgets. These states also experienced declines in their crime rates while these new policies were in place. If states that are as “tough on crime” as Texas, Mississippi, and South Carolina can engage in more rational criminal justice policymaking and recognize that mass incarceration is not necessary to protect public safety, there is no reason for other states not to follow suit.