Justice Reinvestment: The Next Steps


The six-year-old “justice reinvestment” movement is celebrating its achievements in helping states reduce corrections costs with an upbeat report to Congress today—two days after the feds proposed a major funding increase to expand the movement’s reach around the country.

The report by the movement’s sponsors—the Council of State Governments Justice Center, the Pew Public Safety Performance Project, and the U.S. Department of Justice —focuses on the 17 states which have adopted all or some of the justice reinvestment concepts, which are aimed at reducing the nation’s huge expenditures on prisons and other corrections programs ($52 billion in 2011), and spend the money on more effective ways to cut crime.

The Justice Department called the movement “an essential part of [its] efforts to help state, local, and tribal justice systems adjust to the nation’s current economic climate and find ways to improve public safety while controlling the growing cost of criminal justice programs…”

On Wednesday, President Barack Obama proposed to raise the federal allotment for the program sharply, from $6 million to $85 million annually. That would allow it to operate in many more states.

It is far too early to know whether Congress will approve such a big increase for justice reinvestment during an era of across-the board cuts known as sequestration. But the idea of spending money now to save on budgets down the line may appeal to both liberals and conservatives.

In their new report, justice reinvestment advocates list six lessons they have learned in working with states:

1) doing a comprehensive data analysis of problems before starting on reforms;

2) involving diverse constituencies such as prosecutors, public defenders and crime victims;

3) focusing on lawbreakers who are most likely to re-offend;

4) investing in projects backed by scientific evidence;

5) strengthening community supervision like probation and parole;

6) giving government agencies incentives for good performance, possibly by letting them spend some of the money they save.

The report offers examples from a variety of states that have adopted justice reinvestment concepts.

A Kentucky law enacted in 2011 requires that 75 percent of state spending for programs involving pretrial defendants and convicts must be based on good evidence. North Carolina redirected funding to “performance-driven contracts for services.”

Ohio set statewide standards for its 187 probation agencies, which had used varying practices without tracking results.

Despite justice reinvestment’s popularity in many circles, the accolades aren’t universal.

For one thing, even though rates of reported crime have been dropping steadily, the number of prisoners nationally has not kept pace downward. There were slightly more behind bars at the end 2011 in federal and state prisons–1,598,780–than when justice reinvestment began in 2007–1,596,835, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. (The count rose and then fell in the intervening years.)

Critics also say that the “reinvestment” part of the concept usually has paled compared to the money saved, as policy makers decide to spend on items outside of criminal justice.

The report says Kentucky is projected to save $422 million over a decade, but has chosen so far to reinvest only $30 million for expanded treatment, probation and parole, and other services. Similar disparities are reported for Hawaii, North Carolina, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.

Beyond reinvestment, the advocates admit that “while many well-intentioned criminal justice programs have been designed over the years, not all of them have met their goal of reducing recivism and protecting communities.”

Still, they maintain that a large number of states now are moving in the right direction after “get-tough on crime” laws were passed late in the last century, with little proof that they worked to help cut down on recidivism.

The justice reinvestment process helps states and counties apply their resources to practices that “bring the most ‘bang for the buck’ in a particular jurisdiction,” say the idea’s sponsors in the report.

Yesterday, top Justice Department officials got a briefing on the state experiences. Today, congressional staff members will hear about justice reinvestment as its backers continue their campaign for more help from Washington.

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington Bureau Chief of The Crime Report. He welcomes comments from readers.

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