How the U.S. Reversed Prison Population Growth

Collected research, polling, and policy recommendations show how Pew’s work with states helped lower correctional populations and costs

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Editor’s note: This page was updated Feb. 7, 2024, with changes for clarity and to add information about Louisiana in the fifth paragraph.

Pew’s public safety performance project launched in 2005 to produce groundbreaking research on the size, cost, and trends of America’s corrections system and provide technical assistance to states seeking to safely reduce correctional populations.

When the project launched, America’s prison population had been growing for decades. Between 1970 and 2005, the number of prisoners increased 700 percent, and projections showed this growth would continue, imposing billions of dollars in new taxpayer costs. By 2008, more than one in 100 American adults were in jail or prison. The U.S. was by far the world leader in incarceration, correctional spending was one of the fastest-growing major budget items in most states, and the nation’s states were getting a poor return on their correctional spending.

Pew‐sponsored public opinion research revealed overwhelming bipartisan support for a variety of policy changes that shift many people who are incarcerated for lower-level offenses from prison to more effective, less expensive alternatives. The project built partnerships with a range of stakeholders and advocates, from conservative and faith leaders to business and community advocates to state officials, including governors, legislators, and jurists. Along with its partners, Pew diagnosed the factors driving prison growth in states and provided policy audits to identify options for reform, drawing on solid research, promising approaches, and best practices. The project was at the forefront of identifying proven strategies that offer a better public safety return on taxpayer dollars.

Pew’s public safety performance project and its partners at the Bureau of Justice Assistance in the U.S. Department of Justice, The Council of State Governments Justice Center, the Crime and Justice Institute, and Arnold Ventures worked directly with nearly three dozen states as part of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative to help develop research-based sentencing and corrections policies and practices that reduce re-offense rates and keep communities safe while slowing and reversing the growth of prison populations and costs. A Pew-funded external evaluation found that this effort made decisive contributions toward reforming criminal justice systems throughout the nation, saving billions of dollars, closing dozens of correctional facilities, and reinvesting hundreds of millions of dollars into community-based supervision, sanctions, and services that offer better public safety returns.

A prime example is Louisiana, which in 2017 adopted one of the most comprehensive criminal justice reforms in the nation. Six Republicans, two Democrats, and one independent authored the bipartisan package of 10 bills, which enabled Louisiana to shed its long-held status as the state with the nation’s highest imprisonment rate. The measures steer people convicted of less serious crimes away from prison, strengthen incarceration alternatives, reduce prison terms for those who can be safely supervised in the community, and remove barriers to re-entry. The reforms were projected to reduce the prison and community supervision populations by 10% and 12%, respectively, over 10 years. Lawmakers also committed to reinvest 70% of the estimated $262 million savings in local programs that reduce reoffending and support crime victims. The laws outperformed expectations, reducing the prison population by 24% and community supervised population by 38%, reinvesting $107 million, and protecting public safety, all within five years.

Pew also helped officials, practitioners, and others throughout the country share state-of-the-art knowledge and ideas through policy forums; public opinion surveys; multistate meetings; national, regional, and state-level convenings; and online information about what policies work and how local governments can tailor them to address their state-specific issues.


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