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How to Slash the Cost and Size of Overcrowded U.S. Prisons

The Urban Institute has released a significant report outlining that the most effective way to slash the size and cost of overcrowded prisons in the U.S. is to introduce a mix of reforms to sentencing, prosecution, and early release policies.

Stemming the Tide: Strategies to Reduce the Growth and Cut the Cost of the Federal Prison System assesses two major options for reform. The front-end option would curb future growth by reducing the number of new prisoners and issuing shorter sentences. The back-end approach would ease overcrowding by releasing prisoners early or transferring them to community correction centers.

The report finds that neither option by itself will make a dent in alleviating the crisis in our criminal justice system. But, together, both approaches could make a significant difference.

Today, long and unreasonable drug sentences drive the federal prison population’s unsustainable growth. Decreasing both the number of people headed to prison as well as the length of their sentences would be the most direct way to slow the federal prison growth.

In fact, the report conservatively estimates that reducing the number of people entering prison for drug offenses by 20 percent would save nearly $1.3 billion over the next 10 years. Reducing drug sentences by 20 percent would save $1.1 billion during the same timeframe.

But the report finds that reducing the mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses by half would save about $2.5 billion over the next 10 years.

Just as importantly, such a reform would strike a blow against overcrowded prisons by cutting the overcrowding problem in half so that, on average, prisons would operate at 20 percent above capacity. Federal prisons currently operate at between 35 to 40 percent above capacity. Even worse, the most secure prisons in the U.S. have 51 percent more prisoners than they were designed to handle. Even medium security prisons have 47 percent more prisoners than they can handle.

These numbers demonstrate striking savings, but they could be even greater if combined with other reforms that reduce the population and cut costs. These policy changes include letting judges have a greater say in sentencing; decreasing the minimum amount of time prisoners are required to serve; extending more earned and good time credits; and releasing elderly and terminally ill prisoners earlier than scheduled.

There is one more idea to inject more fairness and lessen the financial burden on the criminal justice system. Congress could eliminate disparate cocaine sentencing terms for those prisoners sentenced before Congress approved the Fair Sentencing Act. Their sentences are longer and harsher than those who received shorter sentences after the law was passed. 

Fortunately, this is not a liberal or conservative issue. There is bipartisan interest and support for all of these measures. Moreover, there is proof at the state level that these reforms work. Pilot programs run by state governments have achieved the twin goals of reducing the prison population and saving money without adversely impacting public safety. 

The Urban Institute’s report offers the Obama administration a plan to augment Attorney General Eric Holder’s Smart on Crime proposals and it gives Congress a road map to reduce the growth and costs of the federal prison system. 

This Urban Institute report was supported by the Open Society Foundations.

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