Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s tough-on-crime policies are drawing criticism from civil rights groups and lawmakers. But his efforts also face an additional, perhaps more significant roadblock: state governments. Many have taken big steps away from the incarceration-focused policies espoused by Sessions and, with the cost of imprisonment rising, cash-strapped states have a strong incentive not to reverse course.
A new report from Vera Institute of Justice highlights the efforts that states have made to reduce prison populations and cut prison costs that put a heavy burden on their budgets after the financial crisis. After years of rapid increase, the state prison population fell 5 percent from 2009 to 2015, according to the report. At least 23 states across the political spectrum have reduced their prison populations since 2010, while many others have seen only modest growth.1 Many states have adopted policy changes such as eliminating mandatory minimum sentences, providing alternative punishments rather than imprisonment and enhancing re-entry support to minimize recidivism.
PERCENT CHANGE FROM 2010 TO 2015 STATE PRISON POPULATION PRISON SPENDING PRISON SPENDING PER STATE RESIDENT, 2015 1 California -20.9% +7.0% $220 2 New Jersey -14.8 -10.5 152 3 South Carolina -11.9 -2.5 89 4 Connecticut -11.6 +8.2 283 5 New York -10.2 -7.6 187 6 Vermont -9.8 +2.5 186 7 Colorado -8.5 +0.0 130 8 North Carolina -7.8 -6.3 111 9 Georgia -6.3 -1.7 90 10 Massachusetts -6.2 +3.2 88 Many states have reduced their prison populations
Sessions is pushing in the opposite direction. In a recent memo, Sessions called for prosecutors to pursue the toughest penalties possible, including for nonviolent drug offenses that carry mandatory minimum sentences. The new policy only applies to federal prosecutors, but if Sessions really wants to change direction on criminal justice policy, he will need states’ help: State prisons and local jails account for the vast majority of U.S. incarceration, including a majority of people locked up on drug offenses.2 States, however, may be reluctant to follow his lead.