“Justice reinvestment” initiatives under way in 17 states with federal and Pew Charitable Trusts funding have the potential to achieve a “massive return” on the investment of $17 million so far, said a federally-sponsored assessment issued today by the Urban Institute.
More efficient handling of offenders in the justice system could save $4.6 billion in the states as prison populations are reduced over many years, the institute estimated.
Participating states “have enjoyed both measurable successes and positive cultural and organizational changes as a result of their reform efforts,” the assessment concluded. But it warned that sustaining consensus can be difficult “in the face of policymaker turnover, high-profile incidents, and lack of public education.”
The justice reinvestment concept was devised in the mid-2000s as U.S. prison and jail populations continued to rise steadily and consume higher percentages of state and local budgets.
The idea was to reduce unnecessary, high-cost incarceration, largely by improving supervision of offenders in the community and returning fewer probation and parole violators to prison.
Other reforms have included creation of problem-solving courts and “immediate, swift and certain responses” to probation and parole violations, a practice that has been adopted with notable success in a Hawaii program called HOPE (Hawaii Opportunity Probation with Enforcement).
Savings from housing fewer prisoners can be designated for “reinvestment” in offender treatment programs that have been proven to help lower rates of repeat criminality.
Reinvestments tracked in the assessment have not kept pace with the savings, totalling about $400 million in the 17 states studied.
By criminal justice standards, justice reinvestment is new, and the assessment noted that only eight of the states in the program since federal funding started in 2010 have had revised policies in effect for more than one year.
Prison population dropped in all eight of those states: Arkansas, Hawaii, Kentucky, Louisiana, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, and South Carolina.
Since the assessment was written, Ohio–the state in the group of eight with the highest number of prisoners, has said its total is on the rise again.
The states where the program has not been operating for more than a year with partial federal funding are Delaware, Georgia, Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Dakota and West Virginia.
Since the U.S. Justice Department and Pew will fund justice reinvestment only in states with a bipartisan leadership group supporting it, the concept has had consistent backing from many governors and state legislators.
It has sometimes run into opposition. Recent media reports in Oklahoma contended that some advisers to Gov. Mary Fallin were slow to put justice reinvestment into practice, fearing that it would be seen as “soft on crime.”
The Urban Institute report, which provides a detailed state-by-state look at how justice reinvestment has fared, concluded that in Oklahoma, “the utilization rate of [justice reinvestment] policies has been much lower than expected.”
Some critics argue that despite its successes, justice reinvestment hasn’t gone far enough.
Last month, the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics found that prison populations nationwide declined for the third consecutive year in 2012, but the number went down by less than 30,000: 1,599,000 to 1,570,400. The jail population rose in 2012, and the U.S. total of offenders behind bars remains well over 2 million, prompting other efforts to deal with “mass incarceration.”
The federally supported justice reinvestment program does not include the federal prison system itself or the three states with the highest prison populations: California, Texas, and Florida.
Texas has operated its own version of justice reinvestment, saying in 2007 that it averted $684 million in projected prison building.
Federal support for justice reinvestment in the states has been modest so far–only $6 million annually–but the Obama administration proposed a big increase for the current federal spending year, and in its recently approved appropriations bill, Congress allocated $28 million for it.
In conjunction with Pew’s funding, that could allow many more states to pursue the idea.
Ted Gest is Washington bureau chief of The Crime Report and president of Criminal Justice Journalists. He welcomes comments from readers.