The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
August 10, 2017

Six myths about criminal justice reform

August 10, 2017

When it comes to criminal justice reform efforts, states are leading the charge. Programs such as the Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI), a structured criminal justice reform process designed to help states more safely and cost-effectively manage their corrections populations, as well as Louisiana’s recently enacted bipartisan, data-driven legislation highlight states’ ongoing work to enact evidence-based reforms and data-driven solutions.

But the ongoing discussion on criminal justice reform has put forth varied messages about what really improves outcomes for communities and what the possibilities are for additional reform.

Fortunately, research helps us answer those questions. Here’s the truth about recent criminal justice reform efforts.

Myth: Reducing prison populations will increase crime.

Fact: Reserving prison beds for people who need them the most, which can reduce the prison population, does not increase crime.

In recent years, many states have enacted reforms that reduced prison populations but did not lead to increases in crime rates. South Carolina experienced a 16 percent decrease in its imprisonment rate and a 16 percent decrease in its crime rate, allowing the Department of Corrections to close two facilities.

Myth: Longer sentences enhance public safety.

Fact: “Right sizing” prison sentences or providing alternatives to incarceration improve public safety.

Evidence shows that lengthy prison sentences do not have the public safety returns once believed, and they do not reduce recidivism when compared with shorter sentences.

Many states are focusing prison space on people who have committed serious crimes. For those who have committed less serious offenses, alternatives to incarceration, such as presumptive probation and problem-solving or specialty courts, can hold people accountable while providing services and support.

Myth: Reform is a blue-state issue.

Fact: Reform is a cross-cutting bipartisan issue.

Through JRI, legislators in 28 states have come together to pass bipartisan legislation to improve public safety and ensure criminal justice resources focus on the right priorities. Georgia, Mississippi, and South Carolina—states with Republican governors and legislatures—are leading bipartisan reform efforts.

Looking at the evidence, policymakers on both sides of the aisle and at the state and federal levels see the detrimental impacts of the criminal justice system and are working together to enact legislation to undo those harms.

Myth: Reform ends when legislation is enacted.

Fact: Reform is an ongoing process that takes time and resources to implement.

Policies are often not implemented until months after legislation passes, and it takes years to fully realize the outcomes and savings. Patience and resources are required. Although through 2016, JRI states reported an estimated $1.1 billion in savings and averted costs, they also invested more than $446 million to kick start reforms.

Five states have continued to pursue reform efforts through JRI. With funding from the Bureau of Justice Assistance, Georgia, which experienced a more than 3 percent decrease in its prison population after initial reforms, reengaged with the process to examine probation and incarceration rates to further improve outcomes.

Myth: Community supervision is less effective than incarceration.

Fact: Supervision can lead to positive results for individuals and their communities.

The expanded use of incarceration alternatives and earned time for those leaving prison has resulted in a greater reliance on community supervision.

Kentucky and North Carolina enacted legislation mandating a period of postrelease supervision and experienced a decline in the number of revocations to prison and returns to prison for a new crime. Nationwide, nearly 1 in 5 people in 2012 left state facilities with no supervision. Yet, these data show people released from confinement to the community under supervision have the support and resources to assist in their successful reentry.

Myth: Faltering federal reform spells the end of all reform.

Fact: States will likely continue to lead the way in criminal justice reform, although calls for federal reform continue.

States are likely to continue spearheading criminal justice reform, and efforts have grown increasingly more comprehensive in states such as Louisiana. Through JRI and other models, states are tackling ambitious and thoughtful reforms to increase public safety, focus limited state resources on the people who need them the most, and reduce taxpayers’ burdens. Through JRI, 28 states have saved more than $1 billion and reinvested nearly half into public safety strategies.

State legislators committed to cost-effective public safety will continue to support reforms. Focusing on the evidence—and not embracing the myths—can help policymakers meet the goals of the public and lawmakers alike and improve outcomes for people engaged in the criminal justice system.

This project was supported by Grant No. 2015-ZB-BX-K005, awarded by the Bureau of Justice Assistance. The Bureau of Justice Assistance is a component of the US Department of Justice's Office of Justice Programs, which also includes the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the National Institute of Justice, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, the Office for Victims of Crime, and the SMART Office. Points of view or opinions in this document are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the US Department of Justice.

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