The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
August 1, 2013

Justice reinvestment: Using data to save dollars

August 1, 2013

ga_state_capitol Correctional policy has been slow to adopt data-driven and evidence-based solutions to its various challenges. Perhaps that’s because for years, states assumed that more incarceration equaled more public safety—an idea that’s popular among some politicians and the public, but generally not supported by research.

The fiscal crisis of the early 2000s, combined with plummeting crime rates, led some state leaders to question whether there weren’t more cost-effective, research-supported means of creating safer communities. Enter “justice reinvestment”: A model by which states use data to identify drivers of prison populations and costs, along with analyses of what current policies are effective and ineffective, to guide reform efforts.

The Urban Institute just released a new research brief that chronicles the early activities and results of 17 states engaged in the Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI), a program of the Bureau of Justice Assistance in partnership with the Pew Charitable Trusts. The findings highlight how states found ample room for improvement to the status quo.

  • Several states learned that they were housing low-level, non-violent offenders who could be safely supervised in the community for a lot less money.
  • They also learned that existing parole and probation resources were not sufficient to cover all those at greatest risk of recidivism.
  • Many states found that their growing prison populations were generated by prisoners who failed conditions of probation and parole, but had not committed any new offenses.
  • Others learned that their scarce programming resources were not targeted to those who posed the greatest risk to public safety.
  • And many of the current programs states were funding had no evidence of effectiveness.

These and other drivers of prison populations and costs pointed to a wide array of potential policy changes. In response, states passed legislation addressing both front-end (reduced sentences or probation for low-level nonviolent felons) and back-end (increased earned time credits for program participation) changes to policy and practice.

  • Oregon reduced sentence lengths for certain low-level property and drug possession offenses.
  • Louisiana allowed for earlier parole eligibility for non-violent non-sex offending prisoners.
  • Georgia mandated community treatment for drug offenders.
  • Delaware allowed for greater “good time” credits for prisoners who participate in much-needed programming.

Collectively, the 17 states that have adopted the JRI model are projected to save $3.3 billion over 10 years by implementing these changes. They plan to reinvest a share of these savings into high-performing public safety strategies.

While these projections are impressive, it’s important to remember that we’re still early in the assessment process, and how much money is actually saved and reinvested remains to be seen. Much depends on whether the policies are implemented as intended, whether states make good on their reinvestment plans, and whether state legislatures can refrain from passing new, more punitive laws that negate the strategic and data-driven policies that hold so much promise for long-term reform.

Georgia state capitol building from Shutterstock

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