Un espacio para ideas y soluciones en seguridad ciudadana y justicia en América Latina y el Caribe

US voters are divided over presidents but more united on criminal justice reforms

vote-buttonA Spanish version of this article is available here.

If you are expecting another article on the election results and the new president of the United States, or their implications for Latin America, go back to CNN. Here you are going to be disappointed.

In the US presidential elections, voters were asked about criminal justice reform. In fact, 154 ballots with criminal justice issues were put in consideration in 35 states, ranging from the use of marijuana to the death penalty. Many of the ballots contained citizen security issues, which we will address in future posts.

bail-ballots-in-the-us-tableHere we discuss the election results on criminal justice reform that tended to reduce the rate of imprisonment for minor crimes to cut the costs of penitentiary systems. In the next post we will discuss the election results on the death penalty, gun control, use of marijuana and assistance to victims.

Measures to reduce the cost of incarceration

As we discussed in this previous post, the United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world: 612 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2014 (Bureau of Justice Statistics, BJS). The costs of incarceration are substantial, both in terms of public spending on prison administration and the social costs from the forgone income of imprisoned individuals.

In the study “Innovations in the Costs of Crime in Latin America and the Caribbean” that will be published shortly, we look at the costs of crime in the United States and other developed countries. According to our estimates, the cost of the penitentiary system is around 1% of the country’s GDP (half of which corresponds to public expenditure on prison administration and the other half to the social cost of the forgone income of prisoners). Faced with this challenge, some states have voted for alternatives that seek to alleviate the high cost of incarceration in the United States.

California: Proposition 57 expands opportunities for probation (64% in favor). The state of California has one of the largest prison populations, with 136,088 inmates, surpassed only by Texas (166,043 inmates). Proposition 57 states that offenders who have committed nonviolent felonies and are well-behaved (regarded as low risk) have an opportunity for parole. It allows them to earn early-release credits by taking educational and rehabilitative programs. In addition, it establishes that judges, not prosecutors, should decide whether to try certain juveniles as adults in court.

– Oklahoma: State Amendment 780 reduces penalties for misdemeanors (58% in favor). Oklahoma’s incarceration rate is second in the country, its prisons are crowded, and imprisons more women than any other states when accounting for its population. State amendment 780 changes the classification of felonies, such as simple drug possession, to misdemeanors. It also changes the classification of crimes against property in order to determine their seriousness: previously, a theft or forgery of property worth over $500 was considered a felony offense by state law. The threshold was raised to $1,000.The money saved from fewer prison admissions will be used to fund rehabilitative programs, including substance abuse and mental health treatment programs. It is worth noting that Oklahoma has the second highest rate of adults with severe mental illness, but occupies the number 44 in the United States in financing the treatment of such diseases.

– New Mexico: Amendment 1 expands the possibility of bail to low-income people and removes it for dangerous offenders (87% in favor). This amendment will change the constitution of the state of New Mexico. The new provision grants bail to people who cannot afford it — a major step in the judicial reform and equal access to justice. The amendment also allows courts to deny bail to a defendant charged with a felony if a prosecutor shows evidence that the defendant poses a threat to the public. The possibility of parole for non-convicted detainees considered low risk is still preserved.

Regardless of the result of the presidential election, these three ballots go in the direction of a criminal judicial reform that makes better use of public resources and is underpinned by a more rational prison policy. In the next entry we will discuss the results of the ballots on other key issues of citizen security, which do not always go in this direction, such as the rejection of the abolition of the death penalty.

Photo: Flickr CC Bruce Charles

Laura Jaitman
Sobre el autor
Laura Jaitman is an economist in the Research Department of the Inter-American Development Bank. She previously coordinated research for Citizen Security and Justice at the IDB. Her principal areas of research are the economics of crime, the evaluation of policies to prevent and reduce crime, and political economy. Before joining the IDB, she worked for a decade as a consultant to the World Bank, the IDB, and J-PAL in the evaluation of the impact of public policies in different countries of Latin America. Jaitman holds a Ph.D. in Economics from University College London; a Master's in Economics from the University of San Andrés, Argentina, and a Bachelor's in Economics from the University of Buenos Aires.
  1. Luis Rivera Reply

    Very interesting article on an overlooked but decisive outcome from recent US elections. Regarding the estimation of the cost of the penitentiary system (1% of GDP), it is important to contrast it with the cost of crime (economic, social) for the society as a whole. The (cost) efficiency of the incarceration system should be compared with its crime prevention effectiveness (and alternative mechanisms for crime reduction). What is the expected date of publication of the study (“Innovations in the Costs of Crime in Latin America and the Caribbean”)? Best regards.

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