By Alex Mikulich, Ph.D.
The Gulf South states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, Alabama, and Florida rank 1, 2, 4, 5, and 7 respectively for the rate of adult incarceration among all fifty states. The growth in the incarceration rate among Gulf South states between 1982 and 2007 is also high: Louisiana (272%), Mississippi (256%), Texas (203%), Alabama (176%), and Florida (127%).
This growth is highly significant for the associated increases in federal and state correctional costs, diminishing returns for public safety, and exacerbating racial inequities.
Recent studies from the Pew Center on the States, the Sentencing Project, and the Justice Center of the Council of State Governments, find a declining impact of incarceration on crime, what economists call the “law of diminishing returns.” This means that as states incarcerate more and more offenders, they experience a lower payoff in terms of crime reduction.1
Conversely, increasing funding for parole, probation, and community alternatives to incarceration can increase public safety, reduce recidivism, and decrease costs. The problem is that Gulf States tend to spend disproportionately more on prison costs than proven alternatives.
One study finds that once a state exceeds a threshold of between 325 and 430 inmates per 100,000 residents, incarceration not only fails to reduce crime, it may even increase it.2 Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Texas each greatly exceed that level: Louisiana imprisons 865 people per 100,000 residents; Mississippi stands close behind at 734 adults per 100,000 residents. Texas, Alabama, and Florida respectively imprison 669, 615, and 535 adults per 100,000 residents.
Since 1983, these high rates of incarceration have been associated with steep increases in state correctional costs. Gulf States tend to spend lower amounts per offender per day for imprisonment than the national average. However, all these states were paying significantly higher per offender daily costs in 2008 than in 1983. Most significantly, Gulf States tend to allocate far more dollars to prisons than to parole, probation, and community-based alternatives.
Although Alabama pays the lowest daily prisoner costs in the nation, the state’s prison budget has increased by 44 percent since 1990. Alabama’s Department of Corrections houses more than 27,000 inmates yet its facilities only have capacity for 13,000. At least 1,200 prisoners are housed out of state because of lack of space. Drug and DUI offenses account for nearly forty percent of prison admissions. New “Truth in Sentencing” guidelines took effect in 2006; and, if the courts achieve 75 percent compliance by December 2009, the prison population should be reduced by 2,420 inmates.
Alabama officials are working to divert nonviolent offenders from prison in order to open prison space for violent offenders, reduce costs, and decrease recidivism. The Vera Institute of Justice and the Pew Charitable Trusts are currently working with the Alabama Sentencing Commission and the Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court to provide technical assistance to the Cooperative Community Alternative Sentencing Project (CCASP). CCASP is helping policymakers develop community-based sentencing options to be implemented instead of jail or prison for low-risk offenders.3
One in thirty-one adults is under some form of correctional control in Florida. Forty thousand inmates leave Florida prisons every year and two thirds of these are expected to repeat offenses within five years.4 The Florida Department of Corrections recognizes that the State needs to address recidivism to reduce the prison population, reduce costs, and increase public safety.5 However, the FY 2010 initial appropriations include cuts to health services, community corrections probation services, and substance abuse programs.6 Florida initially appropriated just under $3 billion for corrections in FY 2010, approximately ten percent of the general fund. Detailed per day correctional cost data is not available for Florida.
While Louisiana paid $19.56 per offender per day for incarceration in 1983, it spent $39.75 per offender per day in fiscal year 2008. For every dollar spent on prisons in 2008, Louisiana spent 11 cents on probation and parole. Louisiana spent over $625 million on correctional costs in FY 2008, a 6.4 percent share of the general fund. In 2009, Louisiana cut initial FY 2010 appropriations for corrections by over seven percent by eliminating pay increases, reducing staff, and closing or delaying expansion of new facilities.7
In March 2009, Governor Jindal announced a new re-entry program for state inmates to reduce recidivism and increase public safety. The program intends to increase the availability of local programs to help prisoners re-enter society through expansion of vocational and technical training in partnership with the Louisiana Community and Technical College System, GED prep and testing, literacy classes, residential plans, employment through partnership with the Louisiana Workforce Commission, and a continuum of medical and mental health services and substance abuse treatment in partnership with the Department of Health and Hospitals and the Department of Social Services.8
Mississippi ranks #1 nationally for having 55 percent of its total correctional population in prison or jail. While Mississippi paid $18.06 per offender per day in 1983, it spent $35.69 per offender per day in FY 2008. The $266 million Mississippi spent on corrections amounted to 6.4 percent of the general fund, a share equal to that of Louisiana. For every dollar it spent on corrections, Mississippi spent 39 cents on probation and parole.
The Sentencing Project reports that in 2008 Mississippi amended parole release policy by allowing persons convicted of nonviolent offenses after June 30, 1995 to be eligible for parole after serving only a portion of their sentence.9 The new 2008 law removes nonviolent offenders from the 1994 “Truth in Sentencing” law that had required all offenders to complete 85% of their sentence. This means that nearly 7,000 nonviolent offenders should become eligible for earlier parole and release. This law has the potential to significantly reduce the total prison and jail population of over 32,000 inmates. Mississippi also added immediate release for any nonviolent offender who has a terminal illness.
Texas spent $2.96 billion on corrections in FY 2008. For every dollar it spent for all correctional costs, Texas spent 18 cents on probation and parole. Texas spends $42.54 per offender per day, the highest per-day correctional costs in the Gulf South region.
The need to shift from an imprisonment strategy to community-based alternatives is especially striking in Texas. Between 2007 and 2012, the Texas prison population—already the second largest prison population in the United States—is projected to grow an additional 9 percent, an increase of 14,317 prisoners.
Probation revocations and low parole-grant rates drive incarceration numbers up in Texas. Since Texas imposes the longest probation sentences (average 6.5 years) in the nation and because this overextends probation personnel, probationers often commit a technical violation at some time. If the Texas Parole Board had followed its own guidelines in 2005, an additional 2,252 nonviolent offenders would have been released from prison.
The Justice Center of the Council of State Governments recommends that Texas enhance the use of parole guidelines to free nonviolent offenders, increase the capacity of treatment-oriented facilities, and develop new substance abuse and mental health services. These options could enable the state to avert over $400 million in prison construction, eliminate the projected 17,000 bed shortfall, and improve public safety.10
A consensus among scholars, public policy experts, and local and state government leaders recommends shifting public policy and funding from imprisonment to new probation, parole, and community-based alternatives. This consensus has emerged over the past twenty years in light of the reality of “diminishing returns” from punitive incarceration regimes.
The Pew Center on the States Public Safety Performance Project suggests that five major areas be addressed by public policy:
The Pew Center on the States Report, 1 in 31: The Long Reach of American Corrections provides examples and details of how particular states have successfully implemented these tools and programs. The most effective strategies integrate tools and methods from all five areas. These tools are not a panacea, and they do not address the root causes of racial disparity in the criminal justice system, but they do offer wise options to help Gulf States move beyond failing incarceration regimes.
1. See 1 in 31: The Long Reach of American Corrections (Pew Center on the States Report March 2, 2009, p.17f). This report draws upon a full range of social scientific studies that are diverse methodologically and in political/ideological perspective.
2. Ibid., 1 in 31, note 54, p.34.
7. Christine S. Scott-Hayward, “The Fiscal Crisis in Corrections: Rethinking Policies and Practices” (Center on Sentencing and Corrections, Vera Institute of Justice, July 2009, Table 1). Accessed August 19, 2009.
9. “The State of Sentencing 2008: Developments in Policy and Practice,” The Sentencing Project (January 2009). Accessed August 20, 2009.
10. See the Texas state report at the Public Safety Performance Project, in partnership with the Justice Center of the Council of State Governments and the Vera Institute of Justice. Accessed August 19, 2009.
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