New Reports Highlight Economic Benefits of Alternatives to Incarceration

Research briefs on adult and juvenile justice outline ways for states to save millions

WASHINGTON–States could improve public safety and save millions of dollars by investing in community-based alternatives, according to two new research briefs released today by the Justice Policy Institute (JPI). With states facing serious budgetary constraints, these reports offer policymakers more effective juvenile and criminal justice frameworks to guide them in making difficult budget decisions.

“There’s no magic formula for saving money and protecting public safety,” said Tracy Velázquez, executive director of JPI. “Rather, policymakers can use the tools we already have and reduce correctional populations through incremental changes based on existing, evidence-based strategies.  Expanding access to treatment, improving parole policies and practices, and reducing the number of nonviolent youth and adults that are incarcerated can help states cut costs in the short-term, and also increase the long-term economic productivity and health of communities.”

The Costs of Confinement: Why Good Juvenile Justice Policies Make Good Fiscal Sense finds that states spend about $5.7 billion each year imprisoning youth, even though the majority are held for nonviolent offenses. The brief concludes that most youth could be managed safely in the community through alternatives that cost substantially less than incarceration and could lower recidivism by up to 22 percent. These alternatives are also more cost-effective in reducing crime than incarceration, yielding up to $13 in benefits for every dollar spent. 

According to Pruning Prisons: How Cutting Corrections Can Save Money and Protect Public Safety, similar benefits can be found in the adult system through investments in treatment and parole services. States could save a combined $4.1 billion by increasing the availability of parole by shifting 10 percent of the prison population into the parole system, and improving parole support and services so that fewer people are returned to prison for technical (rule) violations.  Additionally, the report finds that community-based drug treatment provides bigger crime reduction returns than prison–for every dollar spent on drug treatment in the community, the state receives $18 in benefits. 

“For several decades, policymakers have tried to spend their way to public safety via ‘cops, courts and corrections.’ This strategy has made the United States the leader in imprisoning its residents, and has failed as a public safety approach.  Without a change in direction states could end up spending more than $50 billion on corrections by 2010,” said Velázquez.  “These reports inform policymakers that there are better options for improving public safety – options that build stronger, healthier communities instead of more prison cells.”

The Justice Policy Institute recommends the following changes to improve public safety and save money:

  • States and the federal government should re-examine policies that drive increases in incarceration, such as recommitment for technical violations of parole conditions, and incarceration for low-level drug offenses and many nonviolent offenses. Non-incarcerative, community-based alternatives should be explored.
  • States and the federal government should implement policies that can safely increase releases from prison through parole and other community-based programs.
  • As closing prisons realizes the largest financial savings, policymakers should scale their reforms to enable the closure of a facility or, at a minimum, a wing or other discrete portion of a facility.
  • To achieve long-term public safety gains, money saved on incarceration should be invested in community-based services that improve both public safety and the life outcomes of individuals, and in social institutions that build strong communities, including education, employment training, housing, and treatment.

Other recommendations to improve the juvenile justice system include:

  • Incentivize counties to send fewer youth to residential care facilities by shifting the fiscal architecture of the state juvenile justice system to reward increased utilization of community-based options.
  • Invest in intermediate interventions, not secure facilities that don’t improve public safety and interfere with youth development and the chances of future success.
  • Invest in proven approaches to reduce crime and recidivism among young people.
  • Fund evaluations of effective programs and policies in juvenile justice, and support the development of new and different approaches to reduce delinquency and recidivism among young people.

 For more information about The Costs of Confinement and Pruning Prisons or to request a copy of either brief, please contact LaWanda Johnson at (202) 558-7974 x308 or [email protected].