Federal Sentencing in the States: Some Thoughts on Federal Grants and State Imprisonment

John F. Pfaff

Volume 66, Issue 6, 1567-1600

As the movement to reduce the outsized scale of U.S. incarceration rates gains momentum, there has been increased attention on what federal sentencing reform can accomplish. Since nearly ninety percent of prisoners are held in state, not federal, institutions, an important aspect of federal reform should be trying to alter how the states behave. Criminal justice, however, is a distinctly state and local job over which the federal government has next to no direct control.

In this Article, I examine one way in which the federal government might be driving up state incarceration rates, and thus one way it can try to alter them: not directly through its criminal code, but through the millions of dollars in grant money it provides. A strong predictor of state prison growth is state fiscal health: states with more money spend more on everything, including prisons. And federal grants bolster state fiscal capacity. So perhaps one way that the federal government could change state sentencing would be to help prop up corrections spending less.

My final conclusion, while quite tentative, is also somewhat surprising. Contrary to my expectations I held when I started work on this Article, it does not seem as if federal spending is bolstering state spending on incarceration to a significant degree. So cutting back on federal funding for criminal justice activities may not have much impact on state decisions about incarceration. Which, perhaps somewhat ironically, may suggest we want the federal government to spend more, not less, but to allocate the money in ways that encourage states to adopt reforms that push back against excessive incarceration.

Full Article