Washing State Prison Reform?


Report by The Washing State Institute for Public Policy

Under current long-term forecasts, Washington
State faces the need to construct several new
prisons in the next two decades. Since new
prisons are costly, the 2005 Washington
Legislature directed the Washington State
Institute for Public Policy to project whether
there are “evidence-based” options that can:
  • reduce the future need for prison beds,
  • save money for state and local taxpayers,
  • contribute to lower crime rates.

We conducted a systematic review of all
research evidence we could locate to identify
what works, if anything, to reduce crime. We
found and analyzed 571 rigorous comparisongroup
evaluations of adult corrections, juvenile
corrections, and prevention programs, most of
which were conducted in the United States.

We then estimated the benefits and costs of
many of these evidence-based options.
Finally, we projected the degree to which
alternative “portfolios” of these programs
could affect future prison construction needs,
criminal justice costs, and crime rates in

We find that some evidence-based programs
can reduce crime, but others cannot. Per dollar
of spending, several of the successful
programs produce favorable returns on
investment. Public policies incorporating these
options can yield positive outcomes for

We project the long-run effects of three
example portfolios of evidence-based options:
a “current level” option as well as “moderate”
and “aggressive” implementation portfolios.
We find that if Washington successfully
implements a moderate-to-aggressive portfolio
of evidence-based options, a significant level of
future prison construction can be avoided,
taxpayers can save about two billion dollars,
and crime rates can be reduced.

‡ Suggested citation: Steve Aos, Marna Miller, and
Elizabeth Drake. (2006). Evidence-Based Public Policy
Options to Reduce Future Prison Construction, Criminal
Justice Costs, and Crime Rates. Olympia: Washington
State Institute for Public Policy.

          Legislative Direction for the Study

The legislative language directing the Institute’s
study is shown verbatim in the accompanying
sidebar. In brief, the legislation requires the Institute
to study the net short-run and long-run fiscal savings
to state and local governments if evidence-based
intervention, prevention, and sentencing alternatives
are implemented in Washington State.
The Institute is directed to examine three broad
types of public policy options the legislature could

1. Intervention programs. For people already in
Washington’s juvenile and adult correctional
systems, the language directs the Institute to
estimate whether investments in evidencebased
programs could cost-effectively lower
recidivism rates and, as a result, the need for
additional prison beds.

2. Prevention programs. The legislative
language also instructs the Institute to estimate
whether investments in evidence-based and
cost-beneficial prevention programs could help
reduce the need for future prison beds. Since
most prevention programs are for young
children, effective evidence-based prevention
resources can be expected to affect adult prison
use in the longer run. Prevention programs hold
the potential, of course, to offer other near-term
and long-term advantages, such as improved
educational outcomes. In this report, we include
some representative prevention programs but, in
order to complete this report on budget, we were
not able to update our earlier study of prevention
programs.2 Subsequent versions can include
additional prevention programs.

3. Sentencing options. The legislation directs the
Institute to examine possible changes that could
be made to Washington’s sentencing laws,
including sentencing alternatives and the use of
risk factors in sentencing. These options are to
be analyzed in conjunction with the Washington
State Sentencing Guidelines Commission.
After analyzing the economics of each of these
policy options, the task for the study is to project the
total fiscal and prison bed impacts of alternative
implementation scenarios. The goal of these policy
choices is to allow the legislature to consider
different combinations of options that have the ability
to keep crime rates under control while also lowering
the long-run fiscal costs of Washington’s state and
local criminal justice system. In financial terms, this
means identifying “portfolios” of policy choices that
replace lower rate-of-return investments with
strategies that produce higher rates of return on the
taxpayer’s dollar.

Source and Complete Report:  CLICK HERE

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