National Study of Prison Closings

Inmate advocates and correctional administrators are frequently viewed as adversaries. However, advocates and many correctional professionals have made the same policy argument over the years: As a society, the United States cannot spend or build its way out of criminal justice problems. To put it another way, building more prisons and locking up more people will not solve the country's crime problem. Although many stakeholders may have agreed, criminal justice and fiscal policy across the nation went largely unchanged by the argument — until the severe economic downturn that began in December 2007. The downturn provided the impetus for lawmakers to re-examine state budgets and look for savings wherever they could be found.

The fiscal crisis, the rising cost of incarceration and the fact that prison populations were declining in some parts of the country forced policymakers and criminal justice professionals to consider systemwide cost-saving measures between 2007 and 2009. It was the first time in most professionals' careers that closing correctional institutions was considered a feasible option. As a result, lawmakers in many states ended the decades-old prison expansion and began to close penal facilities. The recession ended in 2009, but states continue to grapple with selecting and implementing strategies to reduce correctional system costs.

To save money, policymakers have taken a number of steps: institutional changes (closing prisons and reducing staff, services and programming), "back-end" strategies (reductions in sentence lengths through earned credits or good time, reduced revocations for those under community corrections supervision, and reduced levels of parolee supervision), and "front-end" strategies (diverting offenders to county-level institutions and changing felonies to misdemeanors in an attempt to reduce prison admissions). Significant policy decisions like these are often, out of necessity, made without important information, such as expected impacts, costs and benefits.

In 2011, recognizing that the recession and the resultant wave of prison closings presented a "teachable" opportunity, NIJ funded a national study of prison closings. RAND, in partnership with the Association of State Correctional Administrators (ASCA) and the Center for Evidence-Based Corrections at the University of California at Irvine, won a competitive award to carry out the work.

Researchers conducting the national prison closings study seek to answer the following questions:

  • Where do states stand financially in terms of corrections? What tradeoffs are states making in funding other governmental and social services?
  • What types of initiatives/policy changes have states instituted (e.g., prison closings, reduced programming, early release, use of private prisons, increased size of probation/parole caseloads)? Why did they select these different strategies? What have the challenges been in implementing them? Are commonly used strategies consistent with best practices for ensuring public safety and offender rehabilitation?
  • What has been the short-term impact of these changes on the numbers of incarcerated offenders, institutional performance and other measures, public safety, and correctional expenditures?
  • How can we establish a baseline to measure the long-term impact on crime, including costs and benefits?

To answer these and other questions, the research team is using a number of methods. In collaboration with ASCA, the researchers are conducting a survey of state correctional administrators. In addition, researchers will make site visits to 10 state systems and thoroughly examine data resources in the public domain. Findings from this study are anticipated in early 2015.

Learn more about the award.

Date Created: March 17, 2014