Is There a Better Way to Spend Anti-Crime $$$?


Several states have embraced 'justice reinvestment' as a way of reducing prison populations. But it still causes jitters among many legislators.

With most American prison cells full and state budgets hurting, “justice reinvestment” seems like an attractive concept. Why not spend taxpayer dollars on rehabilitation programs that may break the cycle of re-imprisonment instead of on expensive housing for criminals behind bars?

Indeed, the reinvestment idea has made good headway. A dozen states have adopted or at least are seriously considering its principles. A bill is making its way through Congress that would provide more federal funding to test it in other states.

The idea started in 2003 in Connecticut, where state leaders were disturbed about being asked to spend increasing sums on prison building and maintenance while many released inmates committed new crimes. “They wanted to know what taxpayers were paying and what they were getting for it,” says Marshall Clement of the Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center, which provides states with advice on governance and has been a leader in promoting the justice reinvestment concept.

As logical as the reinvestment idea may sound, political leaders who try to put it into practice must contend with a “tough on crime” sentencing approach that has a decades-old history in many states. As crime rates rose between the 1970s and the early 1990s, the basic response of state legislators was to enact mandatory minimum penalties and to rachet up other terms. Congress offered aid for prison building in the 1990s to states that required inmates to serve at least 85 percent of their terms, so that became the standard in many places.

The result: average length of stay behind bars increased, and prisons took up a larger share of state expenditures. The National Council of State Legislatures says such expenditures now amount to an average of six percent of state spending, or $36 billion each year nationally.

Dealing with Recidivism

The problem of recidivism that worried Connecticut legislators persists across the country. Studies over the years have shown varying results, but anywhere from one-half to two-thirds of former inmates get in some kind of new trouble.

In the past, those who were rearrested, or who violated parole rules, tended almost automatically to be returned to custody. It's not surprising that prison populations ballooned, rising from about 320,000 in 1980 to more than 1.6 million this year, according to a new survey by the Pew Center on the States.

In the reinvestment process, the Council of State Governments is invited to conduct a preliminary study of state sentencing policies by key leaders in a state, who must include the governor and major legislative leaders. Such an arrangement doesn't guarantee the passage of reform legislation, but goes a long way toward insuring that some progress will be made once the study's recommendations are in.

To come up with recommendations for Connecticut, the first state in the process, CSG convened meetings that involved a variety of experts, including corrections consultant James Austin; Michael Jacobson, now president of the Vera Institute of Justice; Susan Tucker and Eric Cadora, then of the Open Society Institute, as well as criminal-justice practitioners from around the nation.

A major goal is to provide options to state leaders. The study might suggest what kinds of inmates can be supervised outside of prison without compromising public safety, based on modern methods of risk assessment. Focus groups are convened of key players in the justice system like prosecutors, judges, criminal-defense lawyers, and crime victim advocates.

Once a study of feasible options for the state is done, the policy makers attempt to enact solutions, whether legislative or policy changes, that will save money by reducing imprisonment. Since each state has a different sentencing structure, there is no cookie-cutter formula. The general idea is that money saved by not housing so many convicts can be spent on services such as drug treatment and on assistance with job placement and housing for ex-offenders.

How has justice reinvestment fared? Before the recession struck nationwide, it generally worked as intended.

Streamlining the Parole Process

In Connecticut, the first test site, legislators streamlined the parole process for low-risk offenders and developed a comprehensive strategy to reduce recidivism. CSG says that nearly $13 million of the $30 million saved was reinvested in community-based pilot projects. The number of probationers who were reincarcerated for minor violations fell 20 percent in the two years between 2003 and 2005., and the prison population experienced a steep drop.

Kansas was another early success story. In 2006, state officials estimated that the prison population was expected to rise by 22 percent, necessitating $500 million to build and operate 1,300 prison beds. Analysis showed that probation and parole violators, many of them needing drug or mental-health treatment, accounted for 65 percent of prison admissions. In 2007, the state legislature passed a series of reforms that sent more probationers and parolees to treatment instead of prison. The state ended up with fewer prisoners, although the count has started to creep up again during the last year.

The most dramatic changes have come in Texas which, along with California, has long led the nation in incarceration rates. In 2007, if current trends were to continue, Texas faced the need for 17,000 more prison cells by 2010, a $2 billion expenditure it couldn't afford.

Like in Kansas, key Texas leaders brought in CSG for analysis and found that the problem was mainly a lack of drug and mental-health treatment. Legislators boosted services for nearly 10,000 convicts, costing $241 million but saving $444 million in prison construction and operation. “The same people who said we would need 17,000 prison beds now say we don't need any,” State Rep. Jerry Madden told a national conference on reinvestment in the U..S. Capitol Visitor Center in January.

One important component to the reforms in various states is changing how parole officers do their jobs: steering them toward helping their clients succeed rather than the traditional practice of “trail'em, nail'em and jail'em,” says Marc Levin of the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a think tank that supports the reinvestment strategy.

Just finding parolees jobs helps a lot. Levin notes that “employed ex-offenders are far less likely to-reoffend, and 65 percent of Texas parolees are working.”

The latest state to take up reinvestment is New Hampshire, where state leaders in January came up with a plan they hope will reduce recidivism by 20 percent. Its two major planks are focusing community-based parole and probation resources on high-risk offenders and using “short, swift and certain sanctions, including jail time,” to cut crime and revocation rates among probationers. In addition to major political leaders, the proposal has the strong backing of the state's Chief Justice, John Broderick, Jr.

State Holdouts

As promising as the justice reinvestment concept is, there is no assurance that it will sweep the nation. CSG is working in a dozen states but that doesn't include some of those with large numbers in prison, such as California and Georgia. Several other states have asked for aid, but it is not clear how many can be added unless Congress provides funding. The cost of the investment process is not high compared with the billions states spend on prisons and other corrections programs. CSG's Michael Thompson estimates that it costs between $500,000 and $1 million per state, stretched out over as long as three years. Much of the money so far has been provided by the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Assistance and the Pew Center on the States. A Senate-committee-approved version of the bill that would create a federal account for justice reinvestment would authorize $25 million per year for five years; the money is spent largely on commissioning studies by experts and convening meetings with officials.

Another major challenge is making sure that the “reinvestment” part of the basic concept really occurs. The risk is that policy makers will focus only on saving money by having inmates serve slightly shorter terms—and then decide to spend the proceeds on items other than services for ex-offenders, such as schools or road building.

Some states are trying to institutionalize the spending shifts rather than leave them to an annual appropriations process that can change radically from year to year. Arizona, for instance, is offering incentives to counties that can cut the rate of probationers' being re-admitted to prison. By doing that, counties can be paid up to half of the imprisonment costs averted by the state.

The most striking cautionary example of the justice reinvestment process may be the experience of Kansas. The Kansas City Star reported in early April that severe budget pressures have forced a $25 million cut in state corrections spending in the last two years; treatment and education problems lost more than half their funding.

Kansas Corrections Secretary Roger Werholtz told the newspaper, “For 'Joe the Parolee,' it means no longer having access to substance-abuse treatment through the Department of Corrections. Joe is going to be lining up and competing for the same treatment slots as any law-abiding Kansan needing the help” but unable to afford it,” he said, adding. “It's going to be harder for him, harder for everybody, to get that treatment slot.”

State Rep. Pat Colloton, a Republican who heads the committee dealing with prisons, told the Star, “Just like that, the national model we created no longer exists.” Still, Kansas is expected to preserve many of the initial reinvestment concepts.

Justice reinvestment may ultimately rise or fall on whether state policy makers buy into the idea underlying evidence-based anticrime policy. That is: the notion that penalties for crimes should be based on how well they actually work, not on how good they sound to politicians and crime victims. Evidence-based policy making is gaining a foothold around the U.S., but it is far from clear that it will become a standard way of policymaking.

Just now catching on is the point that the swiftness and certainty of punishment may be just as important as the severity–and often cost a lot less. As Judge Steven Alm of Hawaii, whose Project HOPE for probationers embodies many justice reinvestment concepts, told the national justice reinvestment summit in January, “It's a simple idea but it's hard to put into practice.”

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and a contributing editor to The Crime Report

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