Document Type


Publication Date

Winter 2005


As the academy's focus has turned to sentencing in the wake of Blakely v. Washington and United States v. Booker, most commentators have continued their benign neglect of actual sentencing practices as they occur in state courts, not to mention whether and how such policies are effective in achieving the goals of criminal justice.This note examines trends in state sentencing policies and prison populations from the perspective of a would-be state reformer hoping to decrease her state's prison budget. Economic pressures, efficiency arguments, and social justice claims have combined to cause some states to desire lower prison populations, but few empirical studies exist of how states actually go about reducing their prison costs.This note begins with an examination of twenty years of prison admissions data, tracking the trends of new admissions into state prison systems. After identifying outlier states - those states whose low admissions defied national and regional trends - the note presents three state case studies evaluating the policy choices contributing to the lower admissions. Next, recommendations are made for would-be reformers based on these results.In addition to incarceration alternatives, special focus is placed on North Carolina's fiscal note program, which, coupled with computer modeling of expected prison populations, has helped the state conduct informed debate about criminal sentencing. In the wake of sentencing reforms, the state has moved from having the nation's top incarceration rate to a place in the middle of the pack, an impressive result given the continued priority of tough sentences for violent offenders.



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