Can Justice Reinvestment Work Around The Nation?


A budding criminal justice system reform campaign called justice reinvestment is marking a watershed moment with a “national summit” this week in San Diego. Government officials and activists from 35 states gathered under the auspices of Pew Charitable Trusts and the U.S. Justice Department for the first time to assess where the movement is headed.

“You work on the cutting edge of criminal justice,” Adam Gelb of Pew’s Public Safety Performance Project told summit participants yesterday. “This is a new way of doing business.”

While it operates in different ways in various states, justice reinvestment generally aims to reduce the prison and jail population and use the money saved to keep crime levels down, both by helping former inmates re-enter society successfully and by holding down the numbers entering prison for the first time.

It’s a daunting task, as shown in a report issued by Pew this week estimating that prison numbers in many states will continue to rise in the coming years.

Pew’s Gelb listed indicators of improvement from states, such as violent offenders occupying more of South Carolina’s prison beds to Texas parole revocations dropping sharply. Two of justice reinvestment’s primary goals are to keep more low-level offenders from expensive prison cells and to reduce historically high repeat-criminality rates.

A big question looming over the San Diego gathering is whether the state-level reforms can be sustained after federal and foundation funding runs out.

Gelb admits that the criminal-justice policy pendulum has swung back and forth in the U.S over the last half century. He displayed a blowup of a San Francisco Chronicle lead story in the early 1970s featuring then-California Gov. Ronald Reagan forecasting the closure of San Quentin prison near San Francisco.

Not only did San Quentin remain open but the state’s prison population rose so fast that, eventually, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a lawsuit forcing the shift of tens of thousands of state inmates to counties. Yesterday, a panel of Californians at the summit expressed optimism that the “realignment” reform of Gov. Jerry Brown would succeed without a crime increase caused by the early release of many prisoners.

In the view of Gelb and many at the San Diego summit, the challenge now is to make criminal justice policy based on reliable data on what works to prevent crime, not on ideology–such as a belief that longer prison terms solves the problem.

“Let’s not allow the pendulum to swing back,” he urged participants.

The Justice Department is making a larger investment in justice reinvestment, spending more than $27 million in the federal fiscal year that ended in October to help states make reforms. It’s a tiny number compared with the many billions spent on incarceration, but many government officials are enthusiastic.

Assistant Attorney General Karol Mason, whose agency is overseeing the federal dollars, came to San Diego to proclaim that the effort should be able to reduce both crime and incarceration levels and produce “substantial taxpayer savings.”

Mason ticked off a long list of examples, such as pretrial policy changes in Delaware and Kentucky, problem-solving courts in Arkansas and West Virginia, and probation and parole improvements in Louisiana, Ohio, Oregon, and South Dakota.

She also plugged juvenile justice reform, saying that the U.S. should “stop making the justice system the default (remedy) for at-risk youth.”

The conference’s sponsors mentioned many of justice reinvestment’s successes in several open sessions, but it was difficult to get a full picture because Pew barred the news media from attending most conference “workshops” in which officials and experts discussed topics like the role of prosecutors and judges, and “harnessing public opinion and building broad support.”

Pew representatives contended that participants might not speak candidly with reporters present, an indication that some criminal justice subjects still may be too touchy to be discussed publicly.

Emphasizing justice reinvestment’s bipartisan appeal, the summit heard yesterday from Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform. Norquist said it was a mistake for conservatives to assume in past years that after they backed stiff prison sentences for many crime categories, that prison “wardens and prosecutors would take care of this.” Another mistake, he said, was to measure the success of anticrime policies by “putting more people in prison.”

Conservatives should have been looking at outputs, not just inputs, he added.

The summit was due to end today with remarks from another major conservative, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA). Gingrich and other advocates of a movement called “right on crime” have spoken out in the last few years about their change of heart from a 1980s and 1990s embrace of long prison terms as a primary aspect of the fight against crime.

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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