Downsizing Incarceration is Good for Fairness, Safety, and our Wallets

January 11, 2012
Guest Post

By Inimai Chettiar, the Policy Counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, where she serves as national legislative counsel to end mass incarceration in states across the country. She has published scholarship on using economic analysis to advance progressive policies, most recently co-authoring Smart Reform is Possible: States Reducing Incarceration Rates and Costs While Protecting Public Safety and Improving Budget Analysis of State Criminal Justice Reforms: A Strategy for Better Outcomes and Saving Money.


It’s no secret that the United States is the largest incarcerator in the world. It’s also no secret that our government selectively enforces criminal laws disproportionately against poor people and people of color, resulting in the mass incarceration of black and brown Americans. Now, one in nine black children has a parent in prison; there are more black men under the control of corrections than were enslaved in 1850.  Our addiction to incarceration has decimated the social and economic futures of generations of Americans.

What might be a secret to most Americans, however, is how the budgetary practices of state legislatures may actually be contributing to the mass incarceration problem. A report released today by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities and the American Civil Liberties Union explains how poorly performed state evaluations of the budgetary consequences of criminal justice legislation are causing some states to spend unnecessarily on prisons while cutting other vital state programs. The report, Improving Budget Analysis of State Criminal Justice Reforms: A Strategy for Better Outcomes and Saving Money, details how a change to the way states perform budget evaluations of proposed legislation could help reduce our incarceration rate – and save states money.

Across the nation, state governments are mired in economic crisis. Unfortunately, many states have taken a short-term attitude toward solving their economic problems: in order to balance budgets in the current year, they cut spending on essential public programs like schools, public assistance, and infrastructure. At the same time, almost all states have increased their spending on prisons. Over the last 25 years, state corrections spending grew by 674 percent, outpacing the growth of other spending to become the fourth-largest category of state spending. Currently, almost $70 billion of our annual collective tax dollars go to our penal system, often toward incarcerating people who pose little or no safety risks.

This prison spending explosion is a direct result of our ineffective, inefficient, and racially biased “war on drugs” and “tough on crime” policies of the 1980s and 1990s. Now, our prisons are filled to the brim with petty offenders, the mentally ill, the elderly, children charged as adults, those with drug addiction in need of treatment, and poor people unable to pay bail.

Some states have not realized the wisdom of reforming their laws to rely less on prison, even though such reforms have been proven by research to reduce recidivism and correction costs while protecting the public. Instead, many state budget analyses tend to focus on the upfront start-up costs of a bill, but fail to examine the later savings these programs will bring – even savings that could be realized in the following year.

Earlier this year, for example, bipartisan legislators in Maryland proposed a bill to create non-prison sanctions for individuals who commit technical parole violations, such as missing a meeting with their parole officer or failing to complete community service. More than one-third of the people behind bars in this country are there for similar technical violations, not for new crimes. Several other states have implemented this same kind of reform and reduced its prison population and spending within just a few years, while continuing to see their crime rates drop. But in Maryland, a poorly performed state budget evaluation considered only the up-front costs of the proposed program and ignored the future savings it would bring, concluding incorrectly that the reform would cost too much. As a result, the bill was scaled back. Now, Maryland will continue to automatically send most individuals who violate parole conditions back to prison even if it is for something as small as missing a parole meeting.

Today’s report finds that it’s not just Maryland where budget evaluations account only for costs and not savings; in fact, most states lack rigorous procedures to account for the full budgetary impacts of proposed laws. And when states examine policies through a cost-only lens, instead of a cost-effectiveness lens, legislators and the public are more likely to reject policies that would actually save us all money overall. The report recommends changes to states’ budget impact procedures that will illuminate the short- and long-term benefits of policies to end our dependence on incarceration, in turn bolstering reforms that will reduce prison spending and save states millions that they can spend on other vital services.

The current system of mass incarceration is stripping away the fundamental rights of a large portion of the population – mostly people of color – at a huge cost to taxpayers.  Locking people up unnecessarily not only deprives them of their liberty, it also destroys their future employment and educational prospects, strips them of their right to vote, and leaves their children without parents.  Americans who care about basic fairness, not to mention their safety and their wallet, should be wondering why our state governments are spending more and more of our hard-earned tax dollars on prisons when there are cheaper and more effective alternatives.