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Corrections Policy

Sentencing and Corrections Reform

Even before the Great Recession struck in 2008, many states were facing troubling financial trends. Among them was spending on corrections, which had increased from $11 billion to $50 billion per year over two decades without commensurate gains in public safety. Yet a growing body of research had identified specific alternatives to incarceration that could simultaneously protect public safety, hold offenders accountable, and control costs.

Pew saw this as an opportunity to help policymakers put evidence-based policies and practices in sentencing and corrections to work. In Texas, for example, Pew and the Council of State Governments helped legislators identify cost-effective options to avert steep prison growth while protecting public safety. The legislature approved a data-driven plan that invested over $241 million in a wide array of evidence-based programs to reduce recidivism, including swift and graduated sanctions and drug courts. It also cut the maximum probation terms of some property and drug offenders from 10 to five years to help agencies tighten their supervision during the earlier years when offenders are mostly likely to commit new crimes.

Since enactment, the state’s parole revocation rate has dropped 46 percent, overall crime rates are at their lowest level since the 1960s, and Texas has avoided more than $3 billion in prison costs.

Today, Pew works with interested states and a diverse set of partners to diagnose the factors driving prison growth and provide policy audits that identify options for reform based on solid research, promising approaches, and best practices. Pew also helps state officials, practitioners, and others across the country share data and ideas through policy forums; multistate meetings; national, regional, and state-level conferences; and online resources.

In 2005, the goal of the corrections initiative was to help four states adopt reforms over the next four years; Pew’s assessment at the time was that the states would save at least $160 million in corrections costs per year without diminishing public safety. By 2015, informed by the work of Pew and its partners, 29 states had enacted policies that were projected to reduce corrections costs by more than $4.6 billion through 2020. Meanwhile, the nation’s incarceration rate has begun to recede while crime rates have continued to fall.