Blog Posts > Being “Smart on Crime” Could Save State $30 Million
June 23, 2010

Being “Smart on Crime” Could Save State $30 Million

According to a new report by the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), halving the incarceration rates of nonviolent criminals would result in an estimated nationwide savings in corrections spending of $16.9 billion annually, with state and local governments receiving $14.8 billion, or nearly 88 percent of the savings. The national incarceration rate is currently about 240 percent higher than it was in 1980, despite no corresponding increase in crime rates. Currently, the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, exceeding those of countries like Russia and Rwanda.

Another recent study , conducted by the Pew Center on the States, found that the state prison population across the country has declined for the first time in nearly 40 years. This is not the case, however, with West Virginia, where 50 of 55 counties experienced growth in inmate population, according to the latest Division of Corrections (WVDOC) Annual Report. In fact, West Virginia’s prison system is growing at the second highest rate in the country – 5.1 percent in the last year – and by far the highest rate among the surrounding states.

Elsewhere, many policymakers are thinking creatively about ways to save on corrections spending. For example:

  • California has sought to reduce the amount of low-risk parolees returning to prison for technical, noncriminal violations (such as missing an appointment with a parole officer) by instituting intermediate sanctions to hold the parolees accountable without placing the additional burden on the taxpayer of sending them back to prison. 
  • Michigan reduced its prison population by over 6,000 inmates in less than three years by reducing the number of inmates who serve more than 100% of their minimum sentence and by improving supervision during the parole/reintegration phase.
  • Similarly, Mississippi rolled back its minimum sentencing for nonviolent, parole-seeking offenders from 85 to 25 percent of the minimum sentence. Over the next year, the state paroled over 3,000 inmates at a median of 13 months sooner than before, with a minuscule 0.2% rate of recidivism, thanks to enhanced assessment tools during parole determination.  
  • Perhaps the greatest success story comes from the state of Texas, which forecasted additional corrections expenditures of $523 million in 2007 to cover a projected influx of new inmates. Instead, legislators initiated a bipartisan overhaul of the correctional system, notably investing in the expansion of drug courts rather than incarcerating all drug offenders. The Pew Center expects the reforms to save the state $210 million over the next two years, plus an additional $233 million if recidivism drops.

These studies are timely not only because the current unstable economic climate has forced policymakers to think creatively about fiscal policy, but because the incarceration rates that have exploded in the last 20 years lack any corresponding increases in crime. The tremendous variation among the rates of prison population change from state to state further suggest the crucial role state policy plays in determining the size of the prison system, as well as the cost to the taxpayer. 

Harsher state regulations often stem from the political desirability of being viewed as “tough on crime.” Thankfully, Governor Joe Manchin wants to be “smart on crime,” issuing a proposal in January to create an accelerated parole program for West Virginia’s least risky inmates. According to the Times West Virginian, the state’s prison system is designed for 5,000 inmates but holds 6,300 (and counting!), dumping the overflow into regional jails – now burdened themselves – that are not designed to be long-term facilities. 

Should Manchin follow through on an accelerated parole program, the taxpayer savings could be considerable – especially if he supplements the program with improved parole supervision, rehabilitation programs, greater investment in and utilization of drug courts, etc. – and without compromising public safety. The average annual cost per inmate in 2009 was $25,651, according to the WVDOC report, so the 2,738 offenders (43.6 percent) incarcerated for nonviolent crimes cost taxpayers over $70 million per year. CEPR estimates that parole costs between $1,300 and $2,800 annually, so even using the most expensive estimate in that range, shifting half of West Virginia’s nonviolent offenders to parole could result in taxpayer savings of well over $30 million.

For more reading on corrections spending reform, try these studies by the Justice Policy Institute and the JFA Institute.

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