Skip to main content

Conservative states leading the way in prison reform

The Supreme Court decision that California needs to shrink (not release) its prison population has made national headlines, but as I mentioned in my last blog, over the past few years many states have already begun reducing their reliance on incarceration.   What is particularly interesting, as the ACLU  points out in their most recent report, is the overwhelming bi-partisan support for prison reform efforts.  Texas, Kansas, Kentucky, Arkansas, and a handful of other states have successfully taken the initiative because of their recognition that prison reduction is not only a smart fiscal policy but a smart public safety policy.  Although politicians can ruin their careers by being labeled as "soft-on-crime," these states have shown that there are reasonable alternatives to being "tough-on-crime."  Republican Kentucky Senator Tom Jenson was quoted as saying his state's sentencing reform bill is "smart on crime" and Republican Governor of Kansas, Sam Brownback explains,  "Recidivism rates are too high and create too much of a financial burden on states without protecting public safety.  My state and others are reinventing how we do business." 

The now bulging-at-the-seams prison system in many states is a result of a wave of tough-on-crime legislation that began in the 80's, such as three strikes laws and mandatory minimum sentencing for drug offenders.  Therefore, people sentenced on parole violations and low-level drug offenses have contributed to the national trend of mass-incarceration, magnifying the impact of prison overpopulation.   This has recently created the opportunity for states to embark on bipartisan reform efforts to not only help stabilize their budget but create innovative and smart-on-crime alternatives to incarceration.  Many conservative states that were in a similar position to where California is now, have led the way in instituting prisoner reduction legislation.

Texas prisons, for example, went from a projected increase of 17,000 new prison beds in 2007 to below capacity in 2011, paving the way for an unprecedented state prison closure this year.  The reforms have not only reduced system-swelling, but have led to the desired goal of increased safety.  In the years following the reform efforts, crime rates have continued to drop more than the year before.  In fact, research proves longer sentences have no effect on deterring future crime. 

Research instead demonstrated the "largest effect on recidivism was risk level of offenders, which highlights the need for assessment and provision of appropriate services to address offender needs in order to reduce reoffending."  The aforementioned states have succeeded by implementing cost-effective measures for pre-trial options, fairer sentencing practices, and strengthening community based programs targeted at those struggling with substance abuse, lack of basic services, and promoting life-skills/independence. 

Here's a sampling of enacted reforms that work:


~ Decriminalizing/"de-felonizing" drug possession and instead mandating non-prison alternatives including drug treatment and community services
~ Eliminating the crack/cocaine sentencing disparity
~ Eliminating mandatory minimums
~ Ending 3 strikes legislation
~ Front-end reforms such as reduced bail, pre-trial incarceration alternatives, and prevention
~ Back-end reforms such as expanding earned-credit programs, early release of nonviolent offenders, and individualized parole decisions

While California often leads the country with progressive reform efforts, it is not leading the way on the issue of incarceration.  The same issues that are bloating California's prison population were identified in previously prison-reliant states like Texas, providing hope that California can seek effective rehabilitative options as the state begins to reduce its prison population.  CJCJ has long advocated for smart alternatives to incarceration and if Texas can close prisons, maybe California can too. 

~Emily Luhrs
SSP Case Specialist

Keywords: Emily Luhrs, overcrowding, recidivism

Posted in Blog, Political Landscape

California Stentencing Institute screenshot

California Sentencing
Institute (CASI)

Explore how California’s 58 counties send their residents to correctional institutions with interactive maps, charts, and downloadable data.

Connect with us

      YouTube

Contribute to CJCJ

Make a difference to youth and adults trying to get their lives back on track.

Join our mailing list

Get regular updates and news delivered to your inbox. We won’t share your information with anyone else.