Arming the Courts with Research: 10 Evidence-Based Sentencing Initiatives to Control Crime and Reduce Costs

Source: PEW Center on the States, Public Safety Policy Brief, no. 8, May 2009

Over one million felony offenders are sentenced in state courts annually, accounting for 94 percent of all felony convictions in the United States. Sixty to 80 percent of state felony defendants are placed on probation, fined or jailed in their local communities. Although the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, there are nearly three times more offenders on probation than in state prisons. Recidivism rates among these felony defendants are at unprecedented levels. Almost 60 percent have been previously convicted and more than 40 percent of those on probation fail to complete probation successfully. The high recidivism rate among felons on probation pushes up state crime rates and is one of the principal contributors to our extraordinarily high incarceration rates. High recidivism rates also contribute to the rapidly escalating cost of state corrections, the second fastest growing expenditure item in state budgets over the past 20 years.

For many years, conventional wisdom has been that “nothing works” to change offender behavior–that once an offender has turned to crime little can be done to help turn his or her life around. Today, however, there is a voluminous body of solid research showing that certain “evidence-based” sentencing and corrections practices do work and can reduce crime rates as effectively as prisons at much lower cost. A comprehensive study by the Washington legislature, for example, showed that greater use of these evidence-based practices would reduce Washington’s crime rate by 8 percent while saving taxpayers over $2 billion in additional prison construction. As the United States faces the prospect of its deepest and longest recession since the Great Depression, we cannot afford to ignore the opportunity to reduce offender recidivism and resulting high crime rates through use of these cost-effective evidence-based practices.

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