Pruning Prisons: How Cutting Corrections Can Save Money and Protect Public Policy

Source: Justice Policy Institute, May 2009

As the United States grapples with harsh economic realities, states and localities continue to cut budgets, shed jobs, and trim institutions that are not cost-effective. Among the least cost-effective are prison and jail systems. Federal, state and local governments are spending a combined $68 billion dollars a year on a system that does not definitively improve public safety, but, instead, destabilizes communities, harms families, and derails the lives of individuals. Research has shown that over the last 10 years, states that have increased their prison populations have not seen concurrent decreases in violent crime. At the same time, the states that have reduced their incarceration rates have seen some of the largest drops in violent crime.

While system changes can be daunting, policymakers can save money and improve public safety by making incremental changes today which use existing, evidence based strategies to reduce correctional populations and spending. The primary findings in this brief include:
– The United States’ prison system continues to grow every year.
– The United States spends billions of dollars on incarceration each year.
– Increasing the availability of parole could save government agencies millions of dollars.
– Improving parole services and supports could save states millions of dollars.
– Substance abuse treatment provided in the community is more cost-effective than
– Community-based programs are cost effective and improve public safety.
– Incarcerating people with mental illnesses is expensive and ineffective.
– Reinvesting money now spent on incarceration in other social institutions will improve public safety in the long term.
– Some states have already started to reduce their prison populations to save money.

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