Growing Prison Population Could Cost Alaska $169 Million in Next Decade

Pretrial supervision, revised drug penalties and alternatives to prison for low-level offenders are among the reforms needed to reduce Alaska’s growing prison population and high recidivism rate, according to the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission. The state's prison population has grown by 27 percent in the last decade and its corrections system cost $327 million in fiscal year 2014, said the report, released last month. According to projections, Alaska will need to house an additional 1,416 inmates by 2024, which is expected to cost at least $169 million in new corrections spending over the next decade. The seven-month-long study, commissioned by state legislators, said the justice reinvestment approach followed by many other states could reduce Alaska’s average daily prison population by 21 percent, while still protecting public safety and holding offenders accountable. Alaska's challenges with long-term prison growth are not unique, members of the commission wrote.

How Information Sharing Can Improve Justice Reform

In order for justice reinvestment to be successful, criminal justice agencies accustomed to keeping disparate data have to streamline information sharing, according to a new paper by the government-funded nonprofit SEARCH. The purpose of justice reinvestment is to a portion of the savings from criminal justice reform to treatment alternatives, training, and other community programs. “Fulfilling this promise, though, requires that those who make policy for, and allocate funding to, justice reform initiatives recognize the importance of making timely, accurate information available to the front-line practitioners—probation and parole officers, treatment providers and healthcare professionals, and the organizations providing services and programs to people under supervision” writes SEARCH Executive Director Scott Came. “Without this flow of information, justice reform will likely fall far short of policymakers' and citizens' expectations, and may in the end neither reduce expenditures nor improve public safety.” In the paper, Came highlights initiatives that built “automated pipelines of information” to help practitioners make better decisions about adjudication, supervision, and rehabilitation for people accused of and convicted of crimes. In a 2013 Kentucky initiative, judges began using Public Safety Assessment (PSA), a data-driven risk assessment tool that uses nine predictive risk factors from administrative data to help make decisions about defendant pretrial release.

How ‘Reinvestment’ Can Save Nebraska’s Prison System

Nebraska's prisons are stuffed with low-level offenders, and the state's parole system provides too little supervision for those released from incarceration, according to a new report by the non-profit Council of State Governments. The report was presented to the Nebraska Unicameral Legislature as part of the state's Justice Reinvestment Working Group, which is seeking to decrease the size and cost of the state's prison system. “Even though reported crime and arrests declined between 2004 and 2013, prison admissions increased and are now outpacing releases,” researchers wrote, noting that if the state’s system goes unchanged, its prisons are projected to swell to as much as 170 percent its current capacity by 2020. The report is part of a nationwide federal effort to encourage states to embrace justice reinvestment, in which states identify the causes of rising prison costs, and push funding toward reducing recidivism and prison size. “Nebraska's property offense statutes have not kept pace with inflation, causing lower-level property offenses to increasingly result in prison sentences,” researchers wrote.

Crime and Prison Population Fall in N.C.

In the three years since North Carolina adopted a series of reforms to its criminal justice system, the state's prison population has dropped by 8 percent and its crime rate has fallen 11 percent, according to a recent report by the non-profit Council of State Governments. Since launching “justice reinvestment” reforms in 2011, the state has closed 10 correctional facilities. Those closures are expected to save the state $560 million by 2017, according to the report. The state has reinvested savings in a variety of prisoner re-entry initiatives, including adding 175 probation and parole officers. Prior to the reforms, an average of 15,000 people each year “left prison without any supervision as they transitioned back into the community, despite having significantly higher rearrest rates than individuals who received supervision after release,” researchers write.

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.

Treating Probation Like Social Work

Should the criminal justice system take cues from the social work sector? A new policy brief by the Criminal Justice Alliance — a British coalition of 70 organizations involved in policy and practice across the criminal justice system — calls for the probation system to adopt the social care model of “personalization,” which utilizes individualized plans to reduce recidivism. The personalization model relies heavily on probation supervisors, who consider an offender's strengths and skills, as well as needs and vulnerabilities, and craft an individualized social work program for the offender. The briefing highlights key elements of personalization, including how supervisors can encourage offenders to focus on relationships, communities and responsibility. The paper authors argue that personalization should be a key facet of justice reinvestment, a movement to manage and allocate criminal justice populations more cost-effectively.

“Massive Return” Seen For Justice Reinvestment

“Justice reinvestment” initiatives under way in 17 states with federal and Pew Charitable Trusts funding have the potential to achieve a “massive return” on the investment of $17 million so far, said a federally-sponsored assessment issued today by the Urban Institute. More efficient handling of offenders in the justice system could save $4.6 billion in the states as prison populations are reduced over many years, the institute estimated. Participating states “have enjoyed both measurable successes and positive cultural and organizational changes as a result of their reform efforts,” the assessment concluded. But it warned that sustaining consensus can be difficult “in the face of policymaker turnover, high-profile incidents, and lack of public education.” The justice reinvestment concept was devised in the mid-2000s as U.S. prison and jail populations continued to rise steadily and consume higher percentages of state and local budgets.

Critics Say Justice Reinvestment Sidesteps Minority Communities

A group of the nation’s leading criminal justice advocates and researchers have charged that the much-lauded “justice reinvestment” strategy has failed to divert meaningful funds to minority communities who have been the most deeply affected by high levels of incarceration. In a report issued today, the advocates are sharply critical of how the six-year-old strategy–warmly endorsed by the Department of Justice only last week—has evolved in many states. While they note progress on many prison and sentencing reforms, the critics argue that the strategy has fallen short in efforts to reduce prison populations sharply, and to reinvest the money saved into heavily minority communities whose residents fill many prison cells–key pillars of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative. By making political compromises to enact reform legislation in states, the critics charge, the Initiative, “as it has come to operate, runs the danger of institutionalizing mass incarceration at current levels.” The group argued that by agreeing to changes in state law that may reduce prison growth but not the actual number of inmates, high incarceration rates may persist “for many decades to come, largely ignoring its impact on communities of color in particular.”