A new report by the Sentencing Project profiles a range of reforms that reduced prison populations between 14 and 25 percent over the past decade in Connecticut, Michigan, Mississippi, Rhode Island, and South Carolina.
After skyrocketing from about 300,000 in 1980 to more than 1.6 million in 2009, the total federal and state prison population in the United States began to decline gradually. From 2009 to 2016, the national prison population fell by nearly 113,000 (6 percent). The authors write in "Decarceration Strategies" that this rate of decline is quite modest and note that while 42 states have reduced their prison populations, 20 of those reductions are less than 5 percent, and eight states' prison populations are still rising.
The report looks at five geographically and politically diverse states that cumulatively reduced their prison populations by 23,646 people with no adverse effects on public safety.
Connecticut reduced its prison population by 25 percent from 2005 to 2016 by focusing on reducing young people's contact with the justice system through reducing school suspensions, changing criteria for detention, and raising the age of adult jurisdiction from 16 to 18.
Michigan achieved a 20 percent decline between 2006 and 2016. The state increased parole grants by expanding the capacity of the parole board, and reduced returns to prison by establishing Technical Rule Violator centers for enhanced programming and services for people under supervision.
From 2008 to 2016, Mississippi's prison population dropped by 17.5 percent after the state scaled back "truth in sentencing" policies to reduce minimum time served from 85 percent to 25 percent of the sentence and applied those changes retroactively. Mississippi also adopted a risk assessment tool that contributed to doubling the parole approval rate.
Rhode Island saw a 23 percent decline from 2008 to 2016 by reducing time served in prison through the establishment of earned-time credits of 10 days per month and the elimination of mandatory sentences for drug crimes.
And South Carolina reduced its prison population by 14 percent from 2008 to 2016 by reducing parole violator revocations to prison through diversion to alternative sanctions and by reducing returns to prison of people between age 17 and 25 through enhanced job-related prison programming and Intensive Aftercare re-entry services.
While each state developed its own approach to decarceration, the report identifies five key strategies that reduced prison populations across the five profiled states. All five states kickstarted reforms and kept momentum going by engaging high-profile leadership, bipartisanship, and inter-branch collaboration, as well as by leveraging outside technical assistance and research. Crime reduction helped decrease prison admissions in all five states, but not on its own. All five states also reduced or adjusted criminal penalties according to seriousness of the offense.
All five states used various strategies to reduce incarceration for violations while on community supervision, including shortening terms of supervision. And all five used dynamic risk and needs assessment to increase the feasibility or efficiency of releases from prison. Several states centralized re-entry planning, trained specialists, and set a goal of release at the first opportunity, and several simplified or expedited release processing in order to increase prison releases.
And all five states increased prison releases by requiring less time served before eligibility for release through expansion of sentence credits, reduction of criminal penalties, modifications to sentence enhancements for aggravating factors, and/or reductions in time served prior to eligibility for parole after a parole revocation.
The authors caution that continuing the decarceration trend in these five states and expanding it to other states will require adequate funding to implement reforms as well as attention to other "lessons learned" over the past decade, including the importance of targeting specific goals such as reducing racial disparity.
They also note that adopting harsher penalties for violent offenses as part of a reform package that includes reduced penalties for nonviolent offenses inherently reduces the potential decarceration impact of sentencing reform while offering little crime deterrent effect.