To many Americans, “criminal justice reform” means addressing two prominent challenges: reining in abusive police officers or cutting prison populations.
This week, the Council of State Governments Justice Center and the Association of State Correctional Administrators brought teams from all 50 states to Washington, D.C., to underline the fact that reform means much more than that.
In opening remarks Monday to the two-day “50-State Summit on Public Safety,” Pennsylvania Corrections Secretary John E. Wetzel called on fellow justice officials to abandon the “stovepipe approach” of handling issues in isolated silos of the justice system and seek cooperation with experts in other areas.
Wetzel’s remarks set the tone for the meeting, which was aimed at presenting officials in each state with a detailed analysis of their crime issues, including trends in arrests, recidivism and “behavioral health,” and help them come up with evidence-based solutions.
Summit attendees include all state prison directors, 41 state legislators, 35 state behavioral health directors, 15 police chiefs, and 12 sheriffs.
A major theme that surfaced early in the session is that issues often labelled as “criminal justice” problems, such as mental illness and addiction, can be handled just as well by public health authorities.
“Mental health needs are overwhelming the criminal justice system,” warned Fred Osher of the state government group, who presided over a panel on “Growing Crises.”
Crime in the U.S. often is described only in terms of national trends, while in reality, the problem differs greatly among states and localities. For example, the violent crime rate nationally is much lower than it was in the 1990s, but 18 states have reported rising violence totals in recent years.
A panel of three police chiefs, Renee Hall of Dallas, J. Thomas Manger of Montgomery County, Md., and Anthony Campbell of New Haven, Ct., discussed a range of approaches being tried in their areas, including more police involvement with schools, and programs to help chronic criminals get jobs.
Hall said police “are not social workers,” but they still believe in forging partnerships with businesses and outside the justice system to help reduce repeat criminality.
In fact, recidivism is another major topic of discussion at the summit, particularly trying to reduce repeated crime among people on probation, a topic not often discussed at such conferences.
Critics often point to the U.S. prison and jail population that tops 2 million, but it’s often overlooked that more than twice as many are on probation or parole.
Repeat crime among those released from prison is 40 percent or more in many states, depending on how it’s measured. The fact that more than 4.6 million people were on probation or parole as of 2015 means that even the lower repeat-crime rate among those convicts mean many more total “recidivism events” by probationers every year, said the Council of State Governments’ Andy Barbee.
Criminologist Edward Latessa of the University of Cincinnati told the conference that too many probation and parole officers act like “referees” whose main job is to determine whether probationers and parolees have violated rules and should be sent back to custody.
Instead, he argued, they should be trained more as “coaches” to take active steps that would prevent those on their caseloads from reoffending.
Bryan Collier, criminal justice director in Texas, and Kathy Waters, probation director for the Arizona Supreme Court, described how their states have used variations on that approach to reduce the totals of people whose probation and parole has been revoked in recent years. Such offenders have accounted for a large percentage of new prison admittees in many states.
The conference heard about a new “Face to Face” program sponsored by the Council of State Governments Justice Center in which public officials are encouraged to meet directly with convicts to hear about their challenges in getting job training or education behind bars.
Attendees were shown a video of Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds visiting prisons. The effort is a bipartisan one. Participants so far include Reynolds, a Republican, along with Republican governors of Georgia, Missouri, and Nevada, and Democratic governors in Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Montana, and North Carolina.
One governor who has criminal justice reform high on the agenda is Republican Matt Bevin of Kentucky, a businessman who made a featured appearance at the summit on Monday.
Bevin has backed reforms including easier expungement of some criminal records by former inmates and “banning the box” to bar state officials from asking applicants about their criminal pasts.
He also has started pilot programs in seven adult and juvenile corrections facilities to improve job training for inmates, and is working to remove prohibitions on former convicts’ obtaining state licenses for many occupations.
Bevin took part in a recent White House meeting with Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law, to discuss potential justice reforms on the federal level.
The governor said he came away “very confident” that the White House will back reform measures, although he didn’t specify which ones.
Bevin said he was not confident that Congress would agree, although he praised several Republicans, including his state’s Sen. Rand Paul, for joining the reform movement.
After the summit, the U.S. Justice Department will offer “technical assistance” to as many as 25 states to pursue reform measures.
The Council of State Governments Justice Center will issue a report in January with its detailed state crime and justice findings.
The summit is being funded by DOJ’s Bureau of Justice Assistance, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Pew Charitable Trusts, and the Tow Foundation.
Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington Bureau Chief of The Crime Report. Readers’ comments are welcome.