For many years, criminal justice reformers have focused on a strategy known as “justice reinvestment”–essentially, reducing the prison and jail population and using the savings to build up social services and other rehabilitation opportunities for offenders. More than half of the states have adopted some form of the concept, and the details of how they have put it into practice have differed from place to place.
A report issued today by the Washington, D.C.-based Urban Institute offers a mixed picture on what it called the “painstaking” process of putting reforms into effect. (The institute also posted a state data tracker for the project.) The study concludes that the program “has spurred significant criminal justice reform in many of the 28 participating states.”
More than half the states where the Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI) has been in place have reduced their prison populations. (The national total in prison and jail was about 2.2 million at the end of 2014, a figure that has declined only slightly in the last few years.) All of the states involved produced a total of $1.1 billion in savings or “averted costs” under JRI, which has been coordinated by the Council of State Governments Justice Center, the U.S. Justice Department, and Pew Charitable Trusts. (The Council of State Governments is currently involved in nine states’ programs.)
Overall, 24 states enacted packages of policy reforms to address the prison populations. The approaches vary, but the laws generally aim to reduce the flow of people into prison, limit their time behind bars, streamline release procedures, and strengthen community supervision. What the report calls a “handful of states” have tried to reduce the number of people unnecessarily detained pretrial, increasing release options and reducing the use of monetary bonds. Many of the changes fall into the category of sentencing reforms, such as diverting people who commit less-serious offenses, including many drug crimes, away from prison or shortening the time they spend there.
Some reforms dealt with parole, increasing the number of offenses that were eligible for parole, increasing “earned time credits” that give inmates incentives for shorter terms through good behavior or completion of programs in prison. Several states adopted “risk assessment” tools to help decide on who should be released when. In the area of prison population, the report says that in 15 states where enough time had passed after the enactment of JRI laws to analyze trends, last year’s prison population was below what experts estimated it would be without reform.
Nine states reported increases in their prison populations under JRI. The report notes that prison populations are affected by many factors, including the total population in a state, crime rates, and decisions by prosecutors. The financial impact of JRI involves both reduced state spending from the need to house fewer prisoners, and costs averted by not needing to provide prison beds or build new facilities. Today’s report said 12 JRI states reported estimated savings and averted costs ranging from $2.5 million over three years to more than $490 million over five years.
As for reinvestment, states invested a total of $450 million, with four states–Delaware, Missouri, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, not investing anything. The money went to a wide range of programs, including victims’ services, drug courts and other problem-solving courts, behavioral health treatment, grant programs to counties, law enforcement grants, training on evidence-based practices, and risk assessment tool development.
Three years ago, a group of justice reinvestment advocates who were not involved in running the state JRI programs charged that they were not doing enough to help the minority-dominated localities who were producing a majority of state prisoners. “Increasingly, JRI has abandoned reinvestment in high incarceration communities as a key element and goal of the initiative,” the critics charged.
The new report did not rank states’ progress under JRI, but three that have made notable changes are Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina. Prison populations in all three have declined, in Georgia from about 55,000 to 53,000, in North Carolina, 40,000 to 38,000, and in South Carolina, 25,000 to 22,000. Georgia legislators in 2012 approved a number of changes in the state’s criminal laws, such as creating separate degrees of burglary offenses to offer more sentencing options based on the severity of the crime, and basing sentences for drug, property, and forgery offenses based on the weight of the drugs possessed, the seriousness of the theft committed, or the severity of the forgery.
The report cited North Carolina for starting to use a risk assessment tool to adjust the intensity of supervision for people on probation and adding 175 probation and parole officers. The report said North Carolina is serving an additional 1,500 high-risk offenders with a program called Pathway to Successful Reentry. South Carolina was singled out for being among the first states to adopt strong requirements for oversight, data collection, performance measurement, and fiscal impact evaluations of its JRI program.
The state was the first to set up a Sentencing Reform Oversight Committee to monitor the state’s criminal justice system. The Urban Institute’s 97-page report, which was prepared with a U.S. Justice Department grant, offers other details on how all of the JRI states are putting their various reforms into practice. Despite what the report termed “considerable progress,” it said states have encountered barriers both in legislating or implementing reforms.
Among the issues: “Reluctance from key stakeholders to support specific reforms or even the general concept of reform, unforeseen changes in the political climate of the state, negative media coverage of reform efforts, and concerns that local jurisdictions would bear the costs of state-level reform.”
The report concluded that “These experiences show that success is not guaranteed even when key stakeholders in the legislative, executive, and judicial branches unite and commit to engage in justice reinvestment.” JRI is not a permanent process.
Some states have pursued one round of it and then dropped it. At least five states—Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Pennsylvania—are “reengaging” with the program after efforts lapsed. Legislatures in all of these states may consider new reform bills next year.
The Obama administration and Congress have backed JRI reform in the states for six years, but it is not yet clear whether that will continue in the presidency of Donald Trump. Still, the Urban Institute concludes that, “If states can build on their successes, learn from their challenges, and pursue additional or more aggressive reforms, JRI could become a strong engine of system-level change across the country.”
Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington Bureau chief of The Crime Report. Readers’ comments are welcomed.