Using the federal budget to fuel decarceration
by Peter Wagner, August 10, 2015
With a growing number of presidential candidates calling for an
end to mass incarceration, there has been a flurry of discussions in the press about the role that the Executive Office can play in reversing our nation’s over-use of the criminal justice system. Since most incarcerated people are locked up in state prisons, people have been asking, what can the leader of the federal government do about mass incarceration?
While it turns out that the answer is “quite a bit,” these discussions have largely overlooked the powerful role that the federal budget plays in shaping state policy. Criminal justice policy is no exception. As Inimai Chettiar observed in the Brennan Center for Justice’s Solutions: American Leaders Speak Out on Criminal Justice:
The federal government has been one of the largest instigators of perverse incentives. For example, the 1994 Crime Bill included $9 billion to encourage states to drastically limit parole eligibility. Unsurprisingly, 20 states promptly enacted such laws, yielding a dramatic rise in incarceration. Today, the federal government continues to subsidize state and local criminal justice costs to the tune of $3.8 billion annually.
Given the federal government’s historical role in fueling mass incarceration, Chettiar points out, federal budgetmakers could switch gears to instead incentivize smarter and more measured criminal justice policymaking:
One basic, yet effective, step: The federal government should provide funds to states that cut both crime and imprisonment. California,
Texas, and other states succeeded by changing financial incentives. They
awarded additional funds to local probation departments that reduced
the number of people revoked to prison. In its first year alone, California
reduced revocations to prison by 23 percent, saving the state nearly $90
million. In one year, Texas reduced the number of people revoked to
prison by 12 percent. In both states, crime continued to drop.
To be sure, slowing and reversing the our nation’s unprecedented use of correctional control requires a multifaceted and long-term approach. But as the other 2016 candidates shape their criminal justice policy platforms, they shouldn’t underestimate the federal budget’s power to steer state justice policy in a positive direction.