Criminal Justice

Safer Communities at Less Cost Part I

Criminal justice reform: Defining the problem

Other than Medicaid, which area of state spending has grown the fastest over the past two decades? Transportation? Education? Legal Fees?

None of the above.

Corrections spending has quadrupled over the past twenty years. With the highest incarceration rate in the world (nearly 2.3 million people), our nation’s broken systems aren’t just costing money—they’re threatening economic development, personal liberties, and society at large. Since 1972, the number of prisoners in the US has grown by 705 percent. In 2008, 1 out of ever 100 adults was behind bars and 1 in 31 was under some sort of supervision.[1]

Clearly, the growth in these systems is out of control and unsustainable. These developments have prompted state officials across the country to reexamine their corrections and criminal justice systems, using a “justice reinvestment” approach. Justice reinvestment is a data-driven strategy for policymakers to reduce corrections spending and recidivism rates, while improving public safety for citizens.

In simple terms: reinvesting funds in the programs and policies that are proven to work.

Fortunately, there is data to support policy reforms that provide for community safety and cost less to the state and taxpayer. Examples include utilizing risk assessment tools, focusing resources on high-risk offenders, responding swiftly to violations of probation and parole, rewarding probation or parole programs that reduce the rate of re-offense, and instituting performance measures to determine and track the success of implemented reforms.

The History

Every criminal justice policy is after the same thing—safer communities. The debate lies in how best to reach that goal.

The 1980s has been dubbed as the “tough on crime” era, pushing legislation that locked up offenders in massive numbers, creating packed prisons and unsustainable costs. Of course, “tough on crime” policy still exists, what’s changing is how “tough” is defined.

A growing body of research has revealed what practices work and how to slow the revolving prison door. “Tough on crime” now means holding individuals to a higher standard, holding programs accountable, funding the programs that can produce results, and asking more of offenders. This research has spurred a number of states to take a look at their criminal justice systems, diagnose problems and adopt new strategies.

A Few Successes

Leading these reform efforts was the state of Texas, passing comprehensive reform in 2005 which saved the state up to $2 billion and brought about the state’s lowest crime rate since 1973. The Texas solution to corrections problems has helped to create a wave of interest across legislatures in the U.S. In 2011 alone, Arkansas, Kentucky, North Carolina and Ohio enacted comprehensive legislation. Arkansas’ reform is projected to save the state $875 million over the next 10 years, savings which can be invested in community-based supervision and services as well as other practices proven to reduce recidivism.  In Kentucky, The Public Safety and Offender Accountability Act of 2011 is projected to bring savings of $422 million over the same timeframe. Other states to enact reform in 2011 included Maryland, Colorado and Louisiana.

With these successes in mind, a number of key states—Georgia, Missouri, and Oklahoma, to name a few—are in the process of developing policies to address their own broken criminal justice systems.


The states that have introduced corrections reform shared a few things in common: high recidivism rates, high corrections spending, and insufficient outcomes. The states that have enacted corrections reform share a few things in common, too: coalition building, bipartisan support, and data to support the reforms. The costs of not taking action are high – it will cost taxpayers, communities, safety, families, victims and society at large. Many states have crunched the numbers and determined that continuing with “business as usual” is not fiscally sustainable.

As more states realize the time for change is now, ALEC is prepared with a set of model policy solutions to help the process. In part II of this series, we’ll look at what each piece of model legislation is designed to do and the evidence that shows why it’s effective.

[1] Public Safety Performance Project, Prison Count 2010: State Population Declines for the First Time in 38 Years, Pew Center on the States, The Pew Charitable Trusts (2010).

In Depth: Criminal Justice

The American Legislative Exchange Council is proud to be a leader on criminal justice reform. For over a decade, the ALEC task force on criminal justice has brought state legislators and stakeholders together for the purpose of driving sound criminal justice policies. ALEC members focus on new and innovative state…

+ Criminal Justice In Depth