As this report demonstrates, state spending on prisons is influenced by a range of factors, and costs can vary widely from year to year. In 14 states, costs have swung up (seven states) or down (seven states) by a substantial 10 percent in only five years. Some factors are largely outside of a corrections department’s control, such as rising health care costs, statewide policies to increase public employee salaries and benefits, and policy changes that affect sentencing, thus affecting the size of the prison population. Other factors are more within the corrections department’s control, such as inmate-to-officer staffing and the number of prison facilities the state operates.

Since 2010, nearly half of states have reduced their spending on prisons. Most of these states did so through deliberate choices to reduce the size of their prison populations and downsize their prison staff. These states have fewer people in state prisons, fewer state resources dedicated to incarceration, and can even boast lower crime rates than five years ago. They demonstrate that a growing prison system is not inevitable, and there are steps that states can take to downsize.

A separate group of states also reduced their prison spending, despite a growing number of people in state prisons. These states run the risk of lowering the office-to-inmate staffing ratio, which can increase the potential threats to both staff and incarcerated people. Spending that declines despite a growing population decreases the state’s ability to offer services, programs, or treatment, which may result in worse outcomes, including leaving mental, behavioral, and other health needs unaddressed and increasing recidivism if people are not properly prepared for reentry. 

Thus, the surest—and safest—way to attain savings is to decrease prison operations by also decreasing prison populations. Surveys and follow-up interviews with states indicate that reducing the number of staff commensurate with the size of the prison population is often challenging, and all states face financial pressures from rising health care costs and rising employee salaries and benefits. But 13 states—Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, north Carolina, Ohio, South Carolina, Texas, and Wisconsin—show that it is possible to reduce prison populations and prison expenses.