Incomplete Fiscal Analysis Undermines Criminal Justice Reform Legislation, ACLU Report Finds

January 11, 2012 1:27 pm

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Lawmakers Need Accurate Information About Long-Term Savings Potential of Proposed Bills


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NEW YORK – States are missing opportunities to pass legislation that would reform criminal justice systems and help alleviate budget shortfalls because legislators are not getting accurate information about how much money the bills would save, according to a new American Civil Liberties Union report released today.

The process of evaluating the fiscal impact of proposed legislation needs to be overhauled, the report finds, because too often states fail to provide legislators with information about the long-term savings potential of bills and instead focus only on up-front costs.

“States are needlessly spending billions of dollars incarcerating people even in the face of research proving that there are far cheaper and more effective solutions to crime,” said Inimai Chettiar, ACLU legislative policy counsel who co-authored the report along with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “It is imperative that lawmakers get full and complete budget analyses of proposed legislation aimed at reducing our prison populations so that they can see how these laws will help balance their budgets while continuing to protect public safety – and then take action to enact these laws.”

According to the report, it costs states between $18,000 and $30,000 per prisoner per year, and of the 2.3 million people incarcerated nationally, the vast majority are housed in state prison systems. Over the past 25 years, state corrections spending has grown 674 percent, according to the report, outpacing the growth of other government expenditures and making corrections the fourth-largest category of state spending. The report also finds that since the late 1980s, 14 states have doubled their spending and 30 states have increased their spending by half.

“Accurate and complete information about the budgetary costs and savings of criminal justice reforms will help states reduce this exorbitant spending while protecting communities and combating the vast racial disparities that plague the nation’s criminal justice system,” said Chettiar.

Some 40 percent of the legislation proposed in statehouses across the nation does not receive any sort of fiscal analysis. Without an official certification that a bill would save money, legislators are less inclined to vote for it, the report says. And even when states do analyze the fiscal impact of bills, the majority of them fail to analyze that impact beyond a year or two.

Compounding the problem, the methodology used to arrive at fiscal impact conclusions is often not made clear, which hampers the ability of lawmakers and the public to decide how accurate a given conclusion is.

A full copy of the report, “Improving Budget Analysis of State Criminal Justice Reforms: A Strategy for Better Outcomes and Saving Money,” can be found at:

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