Pew Center on the States (from Pew Prospectus 2010)

Source Organization: The Pew Charitable Trusts

Author: Susan K. Urahn

03/26/2010 - The year 2009 will be remembered as one state governments would rather forget. Gripped by the stubborn recession, states experienced their sharpest revenue decline in half a century, a collective drop of $63 billion over the previous year.

At the same time, demand for government’s help—especially unemployment insurance and Medicaid—soared as Americans lost jobs and health coverage. All but two states faced budget gaps, and to close them, policy makers reluctantly voted for deep cuts in programs and increases in taxes and fees. And they will continue to face difficult choices in 2010.

One tough choice will involve the growing cost of corrections. State corrections costs now top $50 billion annually—four times the amount spent two decades ago—and consume one of every 15 discretionary dollars.

Over the past several years, Pew has documented correctional trends and proposed sensible reforms, shedding light on a policy area that has been shaped more by “tough on crime” rhetoric than by reference to the facts.

In 2008, a Pew report revealed that 1 in 100 adults in America was behind bars, a sobering rate far exceeding that of any other nation. Last year, we examined the explosive growth in the number of people on probation and parole, a population that now exceeds five million. All told, 1 in 31 adults in America is now under some form of correctional control. State-by-state breakdowns in these reports highlighted where the problems are most acute.

As our research makes clear, prison is unquestionably the right place for chronic and violent offenders, but incarceration has spread far beyond that group, with little impact on recidivism levels. The public is simply not getting a return in safety that matches the investment in corrections. Since states, unlike the federal government, must balance their budgets, every dollar spent unnecessarily on prisons is a dollar not available for early education, higher education, health care or other social needs.

When Pew launched its Public Safety Performance Project in 2006, the goal was to help states embrace smart, proven approaches that save taxpayer dollars while keeping communities safe. The national research tells important truths about the cost and effectiveness of incarceration and the effect of innovative programs emerging across the country. But each state also needs to understand its particular challenges.

Pew’s staff, along with the Council of State Governments Justice Center, the Vera Institute of Justice and other partners, help states analyze who is sent to their prisons and how long they stay. We then provide a customized menu of policy options, informed by evidence-based examples tested elsewhere. Underlying our work, which has been embraced by red and blue states alike, are three goals: reducing crime, holding offenders accountable and controlling costs.

The project first gained traction in Texas, where reforms saved $501 million in fiscal year 2009 and helped cut probation failures by 26 percent. Pew’s partnership also paid dividends for Kansas, which saved $33 million the same year while reducing probation and parole failures by more than 25 percent. Those early victories, combined with the deepening fiscal crisis, have created a growing demand for Pew’s assistance, with more than a dozen states now requesting help.

The work in corrections is just one example of how the Pew Center on the States seeks opportunities to help states embrace wiser, more cost-effective ways of doing business. Our campaigns to advance early educationhome visiting programs, and children’s dental health are built on decades of research showing that investments in the early years pay significant dividends for children, families and communities—and are one of the best approaches to economic development states can take.

Elections are at the heart of a vibrant democracy, and we are working to make voting more cost-effective, accurate and efficient. Our report “No Time to Vote” demonstrated how American military voters overseas were being frustrated by state election laws—a finding that led Congress to enact a sweeping bill, the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act, that serves to ensure that voters abroad get their ballots sooner as well as faster and can return them in time to be counted.

The same focus on performance can lead to reform of the nation’s voter registration system by transforming it from an error-prone, paper-based process to an accurate system that uses already-existing official data sources and the latest proven technology.

Building on a decade of grading states on how well they manage their money, we also bring hard facts to bear on a range of state budget and fiscal issues. Our team of Stateline journalists monitors budget and policy developments, producing a daily roundup of news from across the 50 states and ongoing coverage of critical topics from Medicaid to the impact of the federal stimulus, including state-by-state comparisons on important concerns.

Across this spectrum of issues, our approach never varies: rigorous research that injects hard data into policy debates and ensures that the public have the facts they need to hold government accountable.

Susan K. Urahn
Managing Director, Pew Center on the States

Read more about Pew's work in Pew Prospectus 2010 (PDF).

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