Sentencing and Corrections

The size and cost of America’s prison system has skyrocketed during the last few decades, largely as a result of laws and policies that put more offenders behind bars and keep them there longer. Yet recidivism rates remain stubbornly high, and crime still is a major public concern.

State policy makers across the nation are asking whether soaring prison budgets are the best path to public safety. Increasingly, they are finding the answer is “No.”

The Public Safety Performance Project was established in 2006. It helps states advance fiscally sound, research-based policies and practices in sentencing and corrections that protect public safety, hold offenders accountable and control corrections costs.

The project carries out these objectives by:

  • helping states collect and analyze data—who is admitted to their prisons, how long they stay, who returns—and the implications of corrections practices for public safety and state budgets;
  • improving states’ understanding of how their existing policies, practices and outcomes for dealing with criminal offenders compare to those of other states; and
  • encouraging states to use the best research available to advance reforms that will reduce crime and recidivism, and deliver a solid return on taxpayers’ investments.

It also helps state officials and others share state-of-the-art knowledge and ideas through policy forums; public opinion surveys; multi-state meetings; national, regional and state-level meetings; and online information.

A part of the Pew Center on the States, the project works with several external partners, including the Council of State Governments Justice Center, and the Vera Institute of Justice.

For more information, visit the Public Safety Performance Project Web Site.


  • Leading on Public Safety: 4 Governors Share Lessons Learned from Sentencing and Corrections Reform

    Aug 06, 2013 - The Pew Charitable Trusts recently spoke with four governors—Mike Beebe of Arkansas, Nathan Deal of Georgia, Neil Abercrombie of Hawaii, and Dennis Daugaard of South Dakota—about why they believe justice reinvestment is right for their states. They explore the challenges they overcame to achieve consensus and what it took to enact policies that provide a better public safety return on state corrections dollars.

  • Georgia’s 2013 Juvenile Justice Reform

    Jul 10, 2013 - Following a criminal justice overhaul in 2012, Georgia enacted House Bill 242 in 2013, which included wide-ranging reforms to its juvenile justice system based on recommendations from the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform for Georgians. The council’s provisions of the bill will save an estimated $85 million over five years and reduce recidivism by focusing out-of-home facilities on serious offenders and investing in evidence-based programs. The bill also streamlines and revises the state code relating to juvenile justice and child welfare, including creating new processes for cases involving children in need of services.

  • Time Served: The High Cost, Low Return of Longer Prison Terms

    Jun 06, 2012 - According to a new study by Pew’s Public Safety Performance Project, the length of time served in prison has increased markedly over the last two decades. Prisoners released in 2009 served an average of nine additional months in custody, or 36 percent longer, than offenders released in 1990.

  • The Impact of California’s Probation Performance Incentive Funding Program

    Feb 22, 2012 - While much attention has been focused on California’s “three strikes” law and its high parole recidivism rate as the sources of prison growth, a far less well known driver of prison admissions has been the probation system.

  • State of Recidivism: The Revolving Door of America's Prisons

    Apr 12, 2011 - State of Recidivism: The Revolving Door of America’s Prisons, a new report by the Pew Center on the States, finds that despite massive increases in state spending on prisons, America’s national recidivism rate is stubbornly high, with more than four in 10 offenders returned to state prison within three years of their release.

  • Collateral Costs: Incarceration's Effect on Economic Mobility

    Sep 28, 2010 - Collateral Costs: Incarceration’s Effect on Economic Mobility is a collaborative effort between Pew’s Economic Mobility Project and its Public Safety Performance Project (PSPP). The report examines the impact of incarceration on the economic opportunity and mobility of former inmates and their families. In addition, Collateral Costs examines the prison population by race/ethnicity and educational levels. It finds that incarceration reduces former inmates’ earnings by 40 percent and limits their future economic mobility and that one in every 28 children in America has a parent behind bars, up from one in 125 just 25 years ago. The report’s findings are based on research by Professor Bruce Western of Harvard University and Professor Becky Pettit of the University of Washington. 

  • South Carolina’s Public Safety Reform

    Jul 06, 2010 - In 2010, South Carolina enacted a comprehensive package of sentencing and corrections legislation that puts the state at the forefront of states advancing research-driven criminal justice policies designed to produce a greater public safety return on corrections spending. This brief reviews the legislation and its impact.

  • Arkansas: Improving Public Safety and Containing Corrections Costs

    Jun 04, 2010 - Arkansas’s prison population is projected to grow by as much as 43 percent over the next decade. Building and operating new prisons to accommodate this growth will cost approximately $1.1 billion between 2010 and 2020. With the state prison system already at full capacity, Arkansas policy makers are considering data-driven alternatives that will contain prison growth and corrections spending while protecting public safety.

  • Prison Count 2010: State Population Declines for the First Time in 38 Years

    Mar 16, 2010 - A new survey from Pew Center on the States finds that as of January 2010, there were 1,404,053 persons under the jurisdiction of state prison authorities, 4,777 fewer than on December 31, 2008.  This marks the first year-to-year drop in the nation’s state prison population since 1972.

  • One in 31: The Long Reach of American Corrections

    Mar 02, 2009 - A new report from the Pew Center on the States examines the scale and cost of prison, jail, probation and parole in each of the 50 states, and provides a blueprint for states to cut both crime and spending by reallocating prison expenses to fund stronger supervision of the large number of offenders in the community.

  • Policy Framework to Strengthen Community Corrections

    Dec 15, 2008 - This framework offers state policy makers a menu of five provisions that help corrections agencies implement “evidence-based practices” by providing fiscal incentives, clearing obstacles, enhancing their authority, and tracking their results.

  • Putting Public Safety First: 13 Strategies for Successful Supervision and Reentry

    Dec 03, 2008 - The Pew Center on the States’ Public Safety Performance Project presents strategies that can reduce recidivism and hold offenders accountable for their actions, while also cutting substance abuse and unemployment, and restoring family bonds.

  • Getting in Sync: State-Local Fiscal Partnerships for Public Safety

    Jul 28, 2008 - Some offenders need to be put in prison.  Others can be managed safely on probation in the community.  But judges and prosecutors often face the difficult task of figuring out what to do with defendants who don't fit cleanly into either group.

  • State Sentencing Guidelines: Profiles and Continuum

    Jul 01, 2008 - National Center for State Courts has developed a set of “State Sentencing Commission Profiles” to present what is currently happening in practice.

  • Assessing Consistency and Fairness in Sentencing: A Comparative Study in Three States

    May 22, 2008 - A first-ever comprehensive, comparative evaluation of states that use sentencing guidelines.

  • Ten Steps Corrections Directors Can Take to Strengthen Performance

    May 21, 2008 - This report showcases innovative strategies to improve correctional systems’ performance, transparency and accountability.

  • One in 100: Behind Bars in America 2008

    Feb 28, 2008 - According to a new report released by the Pew Center on the States’ Public Safety Performance Project, for the first time in history more than one in every 100 adults in America are in jail or prison—a fact that significantly impacts state budgets without delivering a clear return on public safety.

  • Expert Q&A: Changing Direction - A Bipartisan Team Paves a New Path for Sentencing and Corrections in Texas

    Jan 28, 2008 - Senator John Whitmire (D-Houston) and Representative Jerry Madden (R-Plano) of Texas helped enact a legislative package that represents a striking redirection of corrections policy in a state known for being tough on crime. The two lawmakers spoke recently with Pew’s Public Safety Performance Project about their accomplishment and what lies ahead.

  • Public Safety Policy Brief: When Offenders Break the Rules

    Nov 16, 2007 - Parolees and probationers who break the rules of their community supervision are a leading driver of jail and prison admissions.  Leading justice administrators and policy makersbelieve, however, that many individuals who have violated the conditions of their release can be managed safely and cost-effectively in the community rather than returned to expensive prison beds.  More jurisdictions are adopting a strategic approach to violations that includes incarceration of high-risk offenders who present an imminent danger of reoffending and a problem-solving combination of penalties, rewards and services to those who pose less risk to public safety.  See how these approaches can protect the community, hold violators accountable and reduce reincarceration and the resulting costs to taxpayers. 

  • Expert Q&A: What Works in Community Corrections - An Interview with Joan Petersilia

    Nov 16, 2007 - Dr. Joan Petersilia is one of the nation’s most respected experts on community corrections. She spoke recently with Pew’s Public Safety Performance Project about what policy makers should know about the research on these critical programs.

  • Key Questions on Measuring and Monitoring Performance

    Nov 16, 2007 - This document, part of a series of primers for policy makers about the critical choices they face in developing strategies to protect public safety, hold offenders accountable and control corrections costs, is on the topic of measuring and monitoring performance.

  • Key Questions on Parole and Probation Violations

    Nov 16, 2007 - This document, part of a series of primers for policy makers about the critical choices they face in developing strategies to improve the public safety return on taxpayer dollars, contains key questions on the topic of parole and probation violations.

  • Public Safety Policy Brief: You Get What You Measure - Compstat for Community Corrections

    Jul 02, 2007 - As parole and probation agencies heed the call to manage for results, they are looking to models like the New York City Police Department’s Compstat program.  See how the selection of performance indicators, the development of information tracking and reporting systems, and the adoption of accountability mechanisms like “live audits” can improve the public safety returns on taxpayer dollars resulting in less crime, fewer victims and offenders who become law-abiding citizens.

  • Public Safety, Public Spending: Forecasting America’s Prison Population 2007-2011

    Feb 14, 2007 - This report is the first known attempt to determine the future growth of the nation’s state and federal prison systems as a whole, along with the projected cost of that growth. Its findings show that America’s prison population will continue its extraordinary growth in the coming years, with more than 192,000 prisoners added by 2011. This growth will carry a heavy fiscal burden, estimated at up to $12.5 billion in new prison construction and $15 billion in operations costs.

  • States United (Winter 2005-2006 Trust Magazine article)

    Feb 01, 2006 - Article on the Pew Center on the States.

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