The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
December 22, 2016

States spearhead ambitious criminal justice reform policies

When it comes to criminal justice reform, odds are that despite potential stagnation at the federal level in the coming years, states will continue leading the charge.

In particular, the states engaged in the Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI), a structured criminal justice reform process designed to help states more safely and cost-effectively manage their corrections populations, are embracing data-driven approaches to criminal justice and enacting a wide range of reforms.

In a new report, Urban Institute researchers find that JRI state reforms saved more than $1 billion, nearly half of which the states invested into proven and promising public safety strategies. But change does not happen overnight.

What’s happening in JRI states

To curb prison growth, states have passed a number of ambitious legislative reforms through JRI.

In the past two years, Utah and Alaska defelonized drug possession through JRI legislation, a bold move that parallels developments in only a few other states (e.g., California, Connecticut, and Oklahoma).

Mississippi overhauled its parole process through JRI, streamlining release for people convicted of nonviolent offenses once they serve 25 percent of their sentence and expanding this provision retroactively to people previously ineligible for parole.

North Carolina restructured how supervision officers respond to violations, authorizing intermediate sanctions (including short jail stays) in lieu of revocation.

These efforts seem to be paying off. Though it is too early to assess the impact of the drug offense reforms in Utah and Alaska, Mississippi’s prison population fell nearly 17 percent in the first two years following reform, the steepest decline of all JRI states. North Carolina has closed 11 prisons and reduced its corrections operating budget.

Why some states are revisiting the JRI process

Though many are taking bold steps forward, JRI states’ experiences show that justice reform is an ongoing process. States are coming back to participate in the JRI process again, either to build on earlier successes or to explore new opportunities.

Georgia is one of five states engaged in a second round of JRI reforms. An early leader with a strong reform champion in Governor Nathan Deal, the state enacted significant sentencing reforms and expanded the use of evidence-based supervision practices in 2012. The following year, Georgia tackled comprehensive reform for youth in the juvenile justice system.

In 2014, Deal spearheaded the Georgia Prisoner Reentry Initiative to improve outcomes for people transitioning back to the community and leveraged funding from the Bureau of Justice Assistance’s Maximizing State Reforms initiative to strengthen prison in-reach programs for specialists to meet with people before release to develop reentry case plans.

And in 2016, Georgia returned for a new JRI engagement and is looking to pass additional reforms in the 2017 legislative session.

Louisiana has also returned to build on success and tackle additional reform. The state first engaged with JRI in 2011 and 2012, expanding earned time credit for people in prison, waiving some mandatory minimum sentences, and revising parole eligibility. Louisiana subsequently saw almost an 8 percent decline in its prison population, yet it still has the highest incarceration rate in the country. The state is in the midst of its second JRI engagement, working toward legislation to be introduced in the 2017 session.

Though preliminary, findings suggest the process is working. Lasting changes require bipartisan support, collaboration, and investment, a hallmark of this effort. This path continues to hold promise, and states and localities will likely continue to lead the charge toward more cost-effective criminal justice policies and safer communities. 

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