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The Crime Report: Justice Reinvestment

20th April 2010

An article by Ted Gest, president of Criminal Justice Journalists and a contributing editor to The Crime Report, offers an overview of the justice reinvestment movement in the U.S.

Several states have embraced ‘justice reinvestment’ as a way of reducing prison populations. But it still causes jitters among many legislators.

With most American prison cells full and state budgets hurting, “justice reinvestment” seems like an attractive concept. Why not spend taxpayer dollars on rehabilitation programs that may break the cycle of re-imprisonment instead of on expensive housing for criminals behind bars?

Indeed, the reinvestment idea has made good headway.  A dozen states have adopted or at least are seriously considering its principles. A bill is making its way through Congress that would provide more federal funding to test it in other states.

[...] In the reinvestment process, the Council of State Governments is invited to conduct a preliminary study of state sentencing policies by key leaders in a state, who must include the governor and major legislative leaders. Such an arrangement doesn’t guarantee the passage of reform legislation, but goes a long way toward insuring that some progress will be made once the study’s recommendations are in.

[...]The study might suggest what kinds of inmates can be supervised outside of prison without compromising public safety, based on modern methods of risk assessment. Focus groups are convened of key players in the justice system like prosecutors, judges, criminal-defense lawyers, and crime victim advocates.

Once a study of feasible options for the state is done, the policy makers attempt to enact solutions, whether legislative or policy changes, that will save money by reducing imprisonment. Since each state has a different sentencing structure, there is no cookie-cutter formula. The general idea is that money saved by not housing so many convicts can be spent on services such as drug treatment and on assistance with job placement and housing for ex-offenders.

How has justice reinvestment fared? Before the recession struck nationwide, it generally worked as intended.

[...] As promising as the justice reinvestment concept is, there is no assurance that it will sweep the nation. CSG is working in a dozen states but that doesn’t include some of those with large numbers in prison, such as California and Georgia. Several other states have asked for aid, but it is not clear how many can be added unless Congress provides funding. The cost of the investment process is not high compared with the billions states spend on prisons and other corrections programs.

[...] Another major challenge is making sure that the “reinvestment” part of the basic concept really occurs. The risk is that policy makers will focus only on saving money by having inmates serve slightly shorter terms—and then decide to spend the proceeds on items other than services for ex-offenders, such as schools or road building.

Some states are trying to institutionalize the spending shifts rather than leave them to an annual appropriations process that can change radically from year to year. Arizona, for instance, is offering incentives to counties that can cut the rate of probationers’ being re-admitted to prison. By doing that, counties can be paid up to half of the imprisonment costs averted by the state.

[...] Justice reinvestment may ultimately rise or fall on whether state policy makers buy into the idea underlying evidence-based anticrime policy.  That is: the notion that penalties for crimes should be based on how well they actually work, not on how good they sound to politicians and crime victims. Evidence-based policy making is gaining a foothold around the U.S., but it is far from clear that it will become a standard way of policymaking.

Read the article here.

Source: The Crime Report

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