9 Innovative Ways to Fix Our Broken Prison System

A teacher giving a lesson to prisoners in a make-shift classroom

It’s a question that has often stumped policymakers across the country: Is it possible to lower spending on prisons while keeping communities safe?

It is in South Carolina, where the prison population dropped nearly 3 percent this year, saving over $5 million in taxpayer dollars.

Along with South Carolina, 16 other states have been taking a hard look at their criminal justice systems and making improvements using a new data-inspired approach called justice reinvestment. There are two simple ideas behind justice reinvestment: 1) state prisons are costly to maintain, and 2) research generally doesn’t support the idea that more incarceration equals more public safety.

Through justice reinvestment, states first gather data to figure out what exactly is driving up prison growth and costs. They then develop targeted policies to fix the problems. From there, states track their progress to see which reforms are working the best to prevent people from committing more crimes.

For the past two years, I’ve been working with a team of researchers at the Urban Institute to look at how 17 states have been using this approach. While the experience of each state is, of course, unique, we’ve seen some creative ways that states are revamping their criminal justice systems.

1. Expanding and Improving Problem-Solving Courts

Well Commons

Georgia funded an $11.6 million expansion of its problem-solving courts. These courts work with arrestees whose needs may not be fully met in a traditional court, like offenders with drug abuse problems or a history of mental illness. Working closely with the arrestees, the courts come up with less adversarial solutions than traditional prison sentences that benefit the offender and the broader community.

2. Making Decisions Based On Risk

Ohio passed legislation requiring the use of a standard set of risk assessment tools across its community corrections system. These tools help predict an offender’s criminal risk factors and the likelihood that they’ll re-offend. They also provide corrections staff with a data-driven method to help decide who can be safely released into supervision or other alternative programs.

3. Changing Harsh Penalties

Oregon reduced sentence lengths for some property and drug crimes, including identity theft and marijuana offenses. Sentencing policies and practices play a big role in driving prison growth across the country. Several states have changed how they penalize offenders, including revising mandatory minimum sentences and re-classifying offenses.

4. Streamlining Parole and Expanding Eligibility


Louisiana expanded parole eligibility to first-time nonviolent, non-sex offenders, who made up 61 percent of the prison population in 2009. Fixing delays in parole processing and expanding eligibility allows candidates to be released to less costly options like treatment programs. This shortens length of stay while ensuring that the necessary structures are in place to protect the public.

5. Responding Swiftly to Technical Violations


Arkansas, Kentucky, South Dakota, and several other states are testing a program for probationers that combines swift and certain punishment with drug testing. Short jail stays, along with other sanctions, can serve as more effective alternatives to long-term re-incarceration for those who violate their parole or probation. These states gave probation officers meaningful and less costly options to use as consequences for violators.

6. Expanding "Good Time" Incentives for Offenders

New York Times

In Delaware, inmates can reduce the time they spend in prison by an additional 60 days a year if they successfully complete recidivism programs. Expanding incentives like “good time” and earned credits can encourage participation in these types of programs and good behavior.

7. Strengthening Community-Based Treatment Programs


Georgia invested $5.7 million into residential substance abuse treatment programs. Community-based treatment programs can help offenders become self-sufficient, healthy, contributing members of society and can reduce their likelihood of reoffending.

8. Requiring Mandatory Post-Release Supervision


Kentucky requires parole supervision for all offenders after they have served their maximum sentence. Sufficient supervision plays a vital role in reducing recidivism. Several states have introduced mandatory supervision requirements for some prisoners to ensure that they receive the right amount of support upon release.

9. Building Accountability

All 17 states have put accountability measures in place to better track and report their data. They are also using “dashboards” to make sure reforms continue over time. Measuring the progress of criminal justice reforms creates accountability throughout the entire system.

These reforms don’t happen overnight and each state faces its own unique criminal justice climate. But one of the pros of the justice reinvestment approach is that it’s rooted in bipartisan support. It brings together all the key players in the three branches of government and criminal justice—from governors to police chiefs to judges to community leaders—to design holistic solutions to state corrections problems.

By making these types of changes, the states that have embraced justice reinvestment are projected to save $4.7 billion over 10 years. Though it’s too early to know whether they’ll meet that goal, the results that we’re seeing now are exciting. Perhaps most exciting, however, is the cultural shift to the idea that offenders should be managed thoughtfully, without compromising public safety and without running state budgets into the ground.

Editor's note: This article is part of PolicyMic's Day of Discussion about prison peform.