The current political and fiscal climate presents a "golden opportunity" for smart criminal justice reforms, James Burch, acting director of the U.S. Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Assistance, told the National Committee on Community Corrections Thursday in Washington, D.C.
The committee, a coalition of interest groups and corrections professionals, met in a session hosted by the Pew Center on the States Public Safety Performance Project.
Burch suggested that the relative lack of government dollars could be an advantage, forcing states and localities to be creative and not depend on the federal government for support. His agency supports the "Justice Reinvestment Initiative," which seeks ways to incarcerate fewer people and reinvest the cost savings on programs that do better at preventing recidivism.
"This may be the most promising initiative [our agency] has going," Burch said.
The Pew project is promoting justice reinvestment in 13 states. At yesterday's meeting, Nancy La Vigne of the private Urban Institute described work her agency is doing in coordination with federal officials to pilot the justice reinvestment model in Alachua County, Fl., Allegheny County, Pa., and Travis County, Tx.
The corrections committee heard, too, from Pat Nolan of the Justice Fellowship about the recently launched "Right on Crime" campaign, in which conservatives are urging "most cost-effective approaches that enhance public safety."
Nolan, a conservative Republican who formerly served in the California legislature, complained that tough-on-crime conservatives have traditionally "turned a blind eye to the excesses of the criminal-justice system."
Nolan said the campaign so far has not targeted election officials for endorsements. But he noted that some of its principles have been embraced by newly elected or incumbent governors in states like Florida, Georgia, Arkansas, Indiana, Louisiana, and New York.
Noting that New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, backs justice reforms that save money, Nolan said the "right on crime" principles are "not captive of one party."
Also at the meeting, Jennifer Laudano of the Pew project spoke about the organization's national research project on public attitudes about crime and punishment, previously summarized in The Crime Report.
Laudano said the survey found that a majority of those surveyed believe that public safety can be maintained while the prison system is cut back.
The Pew research, consistent with the "right on crime" campaign, found that "voters are impressed with language that suggests they could be getting a better return for their taxpayer dollars in corrections investments."
Some 95 percent of those surveyed agreed with the idea of "less prison [and] more accountability for nonviolent offenders."
Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists.
Editor's Note: The Center on Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay College, one of the partners in TCR, has received funding from the Pew Public Safety Performance Project