Connie Ma, Policy Intern at Think NC First

Just under a decade ago, Washington state officials chose to boldly address their growing incarceration rates by investing in early childhood education. The choice was hardly a gamble – by using considerable evidence to back up their decision, Washington state lawmakers wound up saving the state millions.

In 2005, Washington state legislators received a disturbing long-term forecast: due to rising incarceration rates, the state would need to build two new prison facilities by 2020. Each facility would cost $250 million to build, and incur $45 million worth of operating costs every year.[i]

Intent on creating long-term changes, legislators directed the Washington State Institute for Public Policy (WSIPP), the state’s non-partisan legislative research unit, to identify evidence-based policy options that could “reduce the future need for prison beds, save money for state and local taxpayers, and contribute to lower crime rates.”[ii]

In October 2006, the Institute recommended that the state adopt a “portfolio” of investments in adult criminal justice, juvenile justice, and prevention, with projected savings of up to $2 billion by 2030.[iii] The Washington state legislature responded by increasing funding for the Early Childhood Education Assistance Program by $34.1 million, which opened up 2,250 new program slots.[iv] Washington later lowered its prison forecast, “effectively removing one prison from its projection – a 2,000-bed facility at a cost of approximately $250 million” as a result of this investment in prevention and other funds for adult and juvenile corrections.[v] WSIPP estimates there are 1,500 fewer people in state prison as of 2013 thanks to these evidence-based programs.[vi]

"We have research showing ways to lower the crime rate and save money by investing in preventing crime in the first place. It has allowed us to consider policies that are the most effective even if they don’t sound like a sound bite.” - Washington State Senate Committee on Human Services and Corrections Chair Jim Hargrove [vii]

Washington has set a standard for other states to follow with its informed policymaking. Since 2009, the MacArthur Foundation has awarded WSIPP $1.2 million dollars to “advance the use of evidence and cost-benefit analysis in state government policymaking” and to help other states “adopt the WSIPP approach to evidence-based policymaking.”[viii] In 2011, Pew Charitable Trusts and the MacArthur Foundation collaborated to create the Results First Initiative. Results First is based on the WSIPP model and helps states implement “an innovative cost-benefit analysis approach that helps them invest in policies and programs that are proven to work.”[ix]

Since 2011, fourteen states have adopted the cost-benefit analysis model that WSIPP pioneered, including Iowa, Kansas, Mississippi, and Texas.[x] North Carolina should invest in a tried and true model of evidence-based policymaking.

[i] Steve Aos, Marna Miller, and Elizabeth Drake. (2006). Evidence-Based Public Policy Options to Reduce Future Prison Construction, Criminal Justice Costs, and Crime Rates. Olympia: Washington State Institute for Public Policy. Washington State Institute for Public Policy. Retrieved from:

[ii] See i.

[iii] See i.

[iv] Legislative Evaluation and Accountability Program Committee, Washington State. Washington State Legislative Budget Notes, Other Education, 2007-2009 Biennium. Retrieved from:

[v] Stephanie Lee, Elizabeth Drake, Annie Pennucci, Gretchen Bjornstad and Triin Edovald. (2012). Economic evaluation of early childhood education in a policy context. Journal of Children's Services. Available at:

[vi] Steve Aos. (2013). Evidence-Based Policy Options that Reduce Crime and Save Money [PPT]. ICCA Annual Research Conference. Retrieved from:

[vii] Pew-MacArthur Results First Initiative. Pew Charitable Trusts. Retrieved from:

[viii] Washington State Institute for Public Policy: Grantee Profile. MacArthur Foundation Retrieved from:

[ix] Achieving Success With the Pew-MacArthur Results First Initiative: A State Progress Report 2011-13. Pew Charitable Trusts. Retrieved from:

[x] See xi.