New era in corrections: In states such as Michigan, Ohio and South Dakota, recent reforms aim to cut costs, improve public safety
In 1977, South Dakota’s state prisons held just 550 inmates. Over the next 35 years, however, that population would multiply six times — and, in the process, drive costs through the roof.
By 2011, the state’s corrections budget was more than $100 million and had quadrupled in 20 years. And the prison population was projected to grow by another 25 percent in 10 years, with costs increasing to the tune of $224 million.
During the 2013 legislative session, the Legislature, governor and judicial branch worked together to shape a bill to slow this skyrocketing growth in prison inmates and costs. What resulted was a landmark package of about 25 reforms that was signed into law by the governor in February 2013.
South Dakota is not alone in its effort to stem the rising cost of corrections. One in 14 state general-fund dollars is spent on corrections in the United States, with total state expenditures estimated to be $52 billion in 2011.
“A lot of states have taken a fresh look at corrections issues because they are spending a lot, but not getting a sufficient return in terms of public safety,” says Jake Horowitz, state policy director for the Pew Charitable Trust’s Public Safety Performance Project.
“The keys are in their hands — the drivers of the prison population are policies, enacted by states, that determine who goes to prison and for how long. States control their destiny in this area.”
South Dakota’s major reforms
South Dakota’s Public Safety Improvement Act addressed one key source of the state’s tremendous prison growth: decades of policies that imposed broader and tougher penalties for crimes.
“As with many states, and probably the federal government, both parties across South Dakota had a ‘tough on crime’ mentality,” says Jim Seward, general counsel for Gov. Dennis Daugaard.
“Decisions were made on what would appear to be more emotion than evidence. We thought we had to keep increasing the penalties to bring down our crime rate.”
But as South Dakota policymakers closely examined strategies across the country, they found states that were not only bringing down imprisonment rates, but cutting crime rates as well.
The 2013 legislation focuses on dedicating prison space to violent and repeat offenders.
For example, it increased penalties for the most serious drug dealers and producers but reduced them for simple possession and other low-level crimes.
The bill also strengthens offender supervision through alternative courts and sentencing, such as drug and DUI courts that handle offenders who may benefit from treatment. Parolees can earn time off the end of their sentences for complying with the conditions of their release.
“If someone is going to recidivate, experts tell us it’s most likely to be in the first couple of years,” Seward says.
“The goal is to shorten the parole terms for compliant people, so parole agents have fewer people to supervise and can focus on people who are at high risk of reoffending.”
In the first six months, 91 percent of parolees eligible for the program were compliant; more than 1,100 years were shaved off the end of sentences.
Implementation of these reforms in South Dakota is being overseen by a multi-branch oversight council, which will measure performance of the different initiatives over the next five years.
And as part of the 2013 reforms, policymakers are working on a program unique to South Dakota, home to a large Native American population.
The Tribal Parole Pilot Program was developed to address the fact that 47 percent of the state’s parole violations in 2012 were committed by Native Americans. The initiative is aimed at improving these outcomes.
For example, when parolees leave the corrections system, they are often living in the state’s largest city, Sioux Falls — where they have no family or connections to the community. They often end up returning to a reservation, violating their parole.
An agreement to have supervision handled on the reservation, with help from the state, is in the works with one tribe now. The state plans to expand the program to more communities over time.
“There is still that automatic reaction to want to increase the penalty on something to get it to stop, but this isn’t about being ‘tough’ or ‘soft’ on crime — it’s about being smart on crime,” Seward says.
Stopping ‘revolving door’ of prisons
While most states are looking to find efficiencies in their corrections system — ranging from changes to food-service contracts, health care, staff benefits and facilities management — Horowitz points out that states can only cut so much from those areas. The most effective way to reduce costs, he says, is to prevent people from going to prison in the first place.
One trend researchers see across many states is a high percentage of people failing under parole or supervision — either committing a new crime or breaking a rule — and ending up in prison.
“There are more than 4 million people on probation and parole in this country,” Horowitz says.
“That is a lot of people subject to being returned to prison. So states are looking to find ways of stopping, or at least slowing, that revolving door.”
For example, states are focusing resources on the highest-risk offenders and targeting probationers and parolees in the first few months after their crime or release from prison — when data show they are most at risk of re-offending.
This approach is being used in Michigan, where the corrections system costs $2 billion each year.
As chair of the corrections and judiciary appropriations subcommittees, Sen. John Proos wondered, too, if there were a better way to handle nonviolent offenders than simply sending them to prison.
“Maybe we ought to find ways to be smarter about providing an ‘off ramp’ and proper services to individuals who might otherwise find themselves committing crimes and landing in prison, at a cost of $90 per day,” he says.
“What if we spent one-quarter of that cost at the front door instead?”
One of the answers to that question has been Michigan’s Swift and Sure Sanctions program, an initiative that provides immediate repercussions for probationers and parolees who violate the terms of their agreement with the courts.
The voluntary program gives judges the ability to set individual requirements for each offender, as well as the sanctions he or she will face for breaking the rules.
For example, Proos relays a recent example from his home county, Berrien, where a probationer arrived at a state facility for his court-mandated drug test. The test came back positive — and the parolee went directly to jail.
“This is not delayed justice. It is immediate, and there is a correlation between one’s behavior and the consequences,” Proos says.
The hope is to modify negative behavior before it leads to a more serious offense — and a prison sentence.
“States don’t need severe repercussions to deter crime, but the offender has to know that all actions will be met with a swift and certain response,” Horowitz says.
Michigan’s Swift and Sure program began as a pilot initiative in 2012 and is now available to all Michigan counties that wish to participate.
Right now, 12 counties are taking part, Proos says, and six more are expected to join soon. He adds that the program is funded through savings in Michigan’s corrections budget.
In fiscal years 2012 and 2013, there were 399 participants in Swift and Sure. Among those, 95 percent were not rearrested during their time in the program. Proos says the program is a good first step in slowing the spiraling cost of corrections.
“This is a smart investment to decrease the number of people entering the front door of our prisons,” he says. “It begins to change patterns of behavior instead of waiting to fix problems once [offenders] are in the system, costing our taxpayers far too much money.”
Ohio offers new prison alternatives
The cost of corrections is driven not only by how many people go to prison, but also how long they stay there — and whether they return.
Some states have worked to shift decision-making to judges in an effort to ensure that offenders receive a punishment that fits the crime but also aims to get them back into society as soon as possible.
In 2011, Ohio lawmakers passed a sentencing-reform bill that provides alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent, first-time offenders; increases the amount of time inmates can reduce their sentences for participating in certain programs; and emphasizes the use of community-based facilities (such as halfway houses) instead of prisons.
Rep. Tracy Maxwell Heard was a lead sponsor of HB 86.
“This is giving discretion back to judges so they wouldn’t have their hands tied by mandatory sentencing,” she says.
“In cases where [the judge] sees there should be treatment, or community-based facility versus prison, he has the opportunity to implement that where he feels appropriate.”
Heard also emphasizes the importance of making sure offenders are successful when they return to society. Ohio legislation passed in 2012 (SB 337), for example, makes it easier for certain offenders to get driver’s licenses when they leave prison. (Heard points out that a driver’s license is a key to getting and keeping a job.)
The bill also lifts other “collateral sanctions” — rules that prevent offenders from certain activities, such as receiving occupational licenses. Under the law, offenders can receive permission to work in areas unrelated to their crimes.
“If [the work] has nothing to do with the crime they have committed, why should they be excluded?” Heard says. “We need to make sure we have legitimate avenues for people to reintegrate into society.”
Heard is proud of the reforms, but she says the work isn’t done yet. Looking ahead, she’d like to take a more “holistic approach” to reducing Ohio’s prison population — in particular, getting to the root of why people turn to crime.
“People generally don’t fall into criminal activity all of a sudden,” she says. “There are circumstances that lead up to that, such as lack of employment.
“Maybe Mom and Dad aren’t working and the kids are dealing drugs trying to feed the family. Some things are circumstantial, and where we can avoid those, we should.”
She points out, for example, that the public education system is a tool for ensuring that children have the opportunity for a good job, which is a key factor in preventing them from turning to crime.
She adds that job training for adults is important, but that she’d like to see the state better match the skills of workers to the jobs available.
“As legislators, the bottom line is about our budget,” Heard says.
“Let’s look at how many low-level offenders are going to prison, and how many recidivate and how much that is costing us. Let’s look at how much more effective it is to give people treatment instead of going to prison.”