Vanishing stimulus funds -
and changing government policies -
are driving a decline in prison spending across 44 states, according to a new survey
by the Vera Institute of Justice, a nonpartisan criminal justice research group based in New York.
Overall state spending on corrections has exploded 674 percent over the last quarter-century amid a surge in the nation's prison population. But the recession and its aftermath are having a profound effect on both incarceration and spending, according to the survey, which was funded by the Pew Center on the States, Stateline
's parent organization.
Collectively, the 44 states that responded to the Vera survey spent $33.9 billion on corrections this fiscal year, down 1.05 percent from last year. States have used federal stimulus funds to help prop up their corrections budgets during the worst period of the economic downturn. Many are now being forced to provide more state dollars to help fill the void left by the expiring stimulus, and some are cutting back as a result.
But the study also finds specific state policies responsible for the decline in spending. More states, for example, are trying to divert nonviolent offenders from prison and are looking into cost-effective alternatives to incarceration. Meanwhile, they are saving money by reducing or eliminating services for inmates, thinning out or furloughing their workforces and closing prisons, among other steps.
Not every state is part of the spending decrease. While twenty-three of the 44 states that responded to the survey spent less on corrections this year than than they did last year, two (Arkansas and North Dakota) spent the same amount, and 19 spent more.
New York (9.51 percent), Connecticut (7.67 percent), Iowa (6.26 percent), Oklahoma (5.53 percent) and Illinois (5.47 percent) saw the largest year-over-year decreases. The largest increases in spending were in Wyoming (21.40 percent), West Virginia (9.58 percent), Pennsylvania (4.49 percent), Vermont (4.27 percent) and Louisiana (4.13 percent), though Wyoming's increase is attributable to the opening of a new prison facility, according to the state.
As Stateline reported earlier this year, state prison populations overall declined in 2009 for the first time in 38 years, the result of changing policies and declining prison admissions.