Three Dozen States Have Enacted Some Justice Reform

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Over the last decade, 36 states have enacted some kind of criminal justice reform, eight of them more than once, Adam Gelb of the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Public Safety Performance Project tells the American Bar Association Journal. Such reforms can be a struggle to get through legislatures, but they tend to win approval, even in “red” states like Louisiana, because they have bipartisan support. They bring together legislators with diverse backgrounds and interests. These include controlling crime, reducing prison costs, embracing religious ideas about redemption, reducing the size of government, grappling with the effect of imprisonment on families and minority communities, and questioning the morality of locking up so many people.

“The reason that it is so bipartisan and cross branch is that it meets many objectives,” says Alison Lawrence of the National Conference of State Legislatures. “I would say behind all of it, everybody cares about public safety, and that’s the underlying factor.” Louisiana is part of a nationwide movement toward justice reinvestment—policies aimed at simultaneously reducing crime and reining in corrections spending, while holding offenders accountable. Gelb calls those goals “our holy trinity.” States are receptive, Gelb says, in part because they’ve seen the success of earlier adopters—especially Texas, which is the widely acknowledged godfather of justice reinvestment. In 2007, Texas officials decided to avoid building more prisons and to spend $241 million on behavioral health and alternative sanctions programs. Some other states have seen similar results. Pew says South Carolina’s 2010 reforms dropped the state’s prison population by 14 percent as of 2016, allowing it to close six prisons and avoid building new ones. The state saved $491 million and its crime rate dropped 16 percent.

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