Will Trump End Federal Support for Justice Reinvestment?

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Photo by Gage Skidmore via Flickr

Advocates of the 11-year-old national Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI) are worried that the Trump administration plans to scuttle federal involvement in the project.

JRI encourages states to reduce prison populations and reinvest money that is saved in programs that help ex-inmates reenter society successfully.

The advocates’ concern is based on two recent developments.

Early this year, the administration asked Congress to end funding for federal participation in JRI, starting with the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1.

Congress hasn’t completed the spending process for next year, but both the Senate and House Appropriations Committees rebuffed the request and included money for justice reinvestment in their proposed budgets for next year.

The Senate panel would fund the program for $28 million. The House panel provided $30 million, although $5 million of that is for anticrime projects unrelated to the core JRI concept. (See earlier coverage in The Crime Report.)

The second action causing concern is a request for grant applications that the Department of Justice (DOJ) issued on June 28.

In it, DOJ sought proposals for a different concept for JRI, one that would focus on reducing recidivism of state prison inmates.

The DOJ document noted that Congress has said that it intends JRI to fund “activities related to criminal justice reform and recidivism reduction.”

The department then announced a “Justice Accountability Initiative” that it says “has been developed to meet the JRI goals to reduce recidivism and reform the  system by improving the effectiveness of risk assessments and to be more data-driven system-wide.”

The DOJ plan proposes to start pilot projects that would improve risk assessment tools that are now being tested to predict repeat criminality among those on probation.

As of 2016, there were 6.8 million people in the U.S. under the supervision of adult correctional systems, with nearly 4.6 million of them on probation or parole.

DOJ says that today’s probation and parole caseloads typically “include high risk individuals who pose a greater threat to public safety and have more criminogenic needs that may require additional services and increased supervision.”

A U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics study issued earlier this year said that 83 percent of offenders recidivate within 9 years.

“While the use of risk assessments has become wider spread,” DOJ says, “the effectiveness and objectivity of these tools could be improved, updated, or better utilized.”

DOJ is seeking applicants by July 30 that would ‘”develop a new, or improve an existing, risk assessment tool, moving it to a more scientifically rigorous and objective risk prediction tool (based on a computer-driven algorithm), and develop aligned offender monitoring and supervision plans and policies.”

The Justice Department also wants grantees to do related projects, such as assessing  current supervision strategies for former prisoners “and their impact on crime and recidivism and train staff in supervision strategies.”

Other aspects of the proposal include assessing a suggested “data-sharing system” for localities “that would focus on crime and recidivism among offenders released into their communities” and to “improve justice system partners’ abilities to produce a cross-system analysis that provides a better understanding of the contributions of pretrial, probation, parole, reentry, and other services to crime trends.”

The Justice Department proposal, which calls for spending $20 million next year, did not explicitly say that it would end the long-term partnership with outside entities on JRI.

DOJ officials would not elaborate to The Crime Report, but at least one Trump administration official in the department has said he believes that JRI is not consistent with the administration’s “tough on crime” practices.

In a fact sheet issued this week, Pew Charitable Trusts, the principal nonprofit that has partnered with the Justice Department on JRI, said that since 2007, 35 states have reformed sentencing and corrections policies through the initiative.

Other non-federal entities involved in the project are the Council of State Governments Justice Center and the Crime and Justice Institute, and other organizations. The partnering organizations declined to comment on the DOJ actions.

It is possible that they will ask members of Congress who support the current direction of JRI to object to the Trump administration’s changes.

As described by Pew, the state reforms vary, but they “aim to improve public safety and control taxpayer costs by prioritizing prison space for people convicted of serious offenses and investing some of the savings in alternatives to incarceration that are effective at reducing recidivism.”

Since 2007, state imprisonment totals have dropped by 11 percent while crime rates have continued a long-term decline, Pew said. State justice reinvestment laws are expected to save billions of dollars in imprisonment costs.

The Pew publication includes a chart that lists various reforms enacted by states. The policy changes date from laws passed by Texas in 2007 that include easing terms of probation and improving government interventions in offenders’ mental health problems.

Six states passed JRI-related reforms last year, Pew said, including Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Montana, Rhode Island, and North Dakota.

It was not immediately clear whether Pew would continue the aspects of the JRI project that involve helping states pass legislation on corrections issues if the federal government ends its participation.

Louisiana, which had led the nation in state incarceration rates, recently moved to number two behind Oklahoma as the result of changes enacted as part of the JRI initiative.

This week, Gov. John Bel Edwards announced that the state had saved $12.2 million in the current fiscal year, doubling Pew’s initial projections of $6.1 million.

One aspect of the new DOJ Justice Accountability Initiative that could delay or derail it is that like other Justice Department grant programs, applicants must cooperate with federal officials on immigration issues. In other words, “sanctuary cities” or “sanctuary states” would not qualify.

Lawsuits already are pending challenging such requirements for other grants. It is possible that applicants also will contest that announced limitation on the new initiative.

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington Bureau Chief of The Crime Report. He welcomes readers’ comments.

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