Study looks at economic benefit of early prison release

Kyra Haas Arizona Capitol Times//February 23, 2021

Study looks at economic benefit of early prison release

Kyra Haas Arizona Capitol Times//February 23, 2021


A new report found that Arizona could save $1.4 billion in the next decade if the state implements more opportunities for non-dangerous offenders to shave time off their prison sentences.

Rounds Consulting Group looked at the earned release credits proposal outlined in the 2020 Second Chances, Rehabilitation and Public Safety Act ballot initiative. The measure didn’t make the November ballot after the Arizona Secretary of State’s Office found that the initiative’s signature failure rate was too high and it therefore lacked the needed number of signatures.

The report, Arizona Criminal Justice Reform: Savings and Economic Benefits, was released today.

Lawmakers can still move one of the initiative’s core ideas of expanding release credits forward. Rounds Consulting Group found that doing so by increasing the incentives for incarcerated people to participate in programs could also decrease recidivism and increase a person’s likely wages after release.

“Better jobs and wages could increase Arizona’s state tax revenue by an additional $107 million over the next ten years,” Jim Rounds, the group’s president, stated in a news release.

To put that in perspective, Rounds said that in order to have the same economic impact as this policy, Arizona would have to “attract 30 large-scale high tech manufacturing businesses with a total of 15,000 new jobs” over the next 10 years.

The proposed policy would have allowed incarcerated people who committed non-dangerous offenses to earn one day toward early release for every day served. The credits would incentivize participating in rehabilitative programs such as education and treatment. Everyone else would continue to earn one day for every six days served. 

The proposal also contained a provision that would allow credits to be revoked if a person refused to participate in programs or follow the rules.

“The ultimate goal of the Proposed ERC Policy is to reduce the total prison population in Arizona and reduce recidivism by utilizing effective rehabilitation programs that help formerly incarcerated people successfully reintegrate into society,” the report stated.

Arizona currently requires most offenders to serve at least 85% of their sentences, following the 1993 passage of a “truth in sentencing” law. The state has the fifth highest incarceration rate in the country.

FWD.us, a bipartisan immigration and criminal justice advocacy organization, found in a previous study that if Arizona allowed these offenders to participate in programming and follow prison rules in order to earn up to 50% off their sentence, it would also reduce the state’s prison population by 18 to 23% in the next 10 years.

Rounds Consulting Group used both the optimistic (23% reduction) and conservative (18%) projections from FWD.us in estimating prison costs savings. According to the state Department of Corrections and the Joint Legislative Budget Committee, the average annual cost per incarcerated person was $27,800 in 2020. That number includes fixed costs like prison staffing and facility costs.

Marginal costs per person, such as providing food and medical care, are the initial savings after someone is released. The average costs go down “in the long run as fewer people are incarcerated, and fixed costs can be reduced,” according to the report.

The most likely scenario, according to the report, is that savings will rapidly increase in the early years after implementation before leveling off around 85-90%.

“Using the most likely approach, Scenario A yields annual prison expenditure savings equal to

approximately $200M by the end of the first decade,” the report stated. “Over the first 10 years, the cumulative prison expenditure savings is about $1.4B.”