17 States Expected to Lower Prisoner Populations, Slow Prison Growth, and Save Billions through Innovative Justice Reforms

Urban Institute Assesses Impact of Federally-Funded Justice Reinvestment Initiative

Seventeen Justice Reinvestment Initiative states are projected to save as much as $4.6 billion through reforms that increase the efficiency of their criminal justice systems. Eight states that had JRI policies in effect for at least one year – Arkansas, Hawaii, Louisiana, Kentucky, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, and South Carolina – reduced their prison populations. Through the Initiative, states receive federal dollars to assess and improve their criminal justice systems while enhancing public safety. This report chronicles 17 states as they enacted comprehensive criminal justice reforms relying on bipartisan and interbranch collaboration. The study notes common factors that drove prison growth and costs and documents how each state responded with targeted policies.

Kate Villarreal, kvillarreal@urban.org, (202) 261-5404

WASHINGTON, D.C., January 27, 2014 -- Across the country, states are pioneering strategies to reduce their prison populations and costs, and invest criminal-justice dollars in evidence-based policies. 

A new Urban Institute report details the experiences of 17 states participating in the Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI). Through JRI, sponsored by the US Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) in partnership with the Pew Charitable Trusts, states receive federal dollars to assess, revamp, and monitor the performance of their criminal justice systems. 

The Justice Reinvestment Initiative State Assessment Report examines the factors driving prison growth and how state policymakers are responding to this growth. Common problems include lengthy sentences, high parole and probation revocation rates, and inefficient supervision and reentry services for released offenders.

States are testing a range of strategies designed to yield better public safety returns on their corrections spending. In South Carolina, for instance, corrections spending rose 500 percent over the past 25 years, and its prison population tripled. Increased housing of nonviolent offenders, a growing number of returning parolees and probationers, and declining use of parole drove this growth. The state responded with targeted reforms, such as strengthening supervision and enhancing parole release decisionmaking. Since implementing the reforms, the state has saved more than $7 million and prevented the return of 1,000 probationers and parolees to prison. Total projected savings across all 17 states amount to as much as $4.6 billion.

In addition to the benefit to state budgets, the report authors identify two bright spots in the reform efforts: enhanced cooperation and coordination throughout the criminal justice system and a cultural shift toward data-driven decisionmaking. States participating in JRI must demonstrate bipartisan support, involve the three branches of government, and actively engage stakeholders throughout the justice system—from judges to police chiefs to community leaders. JRI’s technical assistance providers work with the states to capture data, monitor the progress of reforms, and enhance accountability. 

“The financial success of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative is impressive, as is the degree to which states have embraced evidence-based practices that will undoubtedly enhance public safety,” said Denise O’Donnell, director of BJA. 

The report notes that systemwide overhauls can come with unique challenges. Changing political climates, high-profile crime incidents, and a lack of public education sometimes made it difficult for state leaders to agree on reforms. Public and policymaker impatience can bubble up when there’s a lack of immediate positive results, as some reforms may require several years to materialize.

According to the report’s principal investigator and Justice Policy Center director, Nancy La Vigne, “One of the best outcomes we’ve seen is that state leaders are now equipped with the hard data and tools they need to make well-informed policy decisions. Through JRI, they have been able to ask and answer long-standing questions about which types of policies and practices were contributing to prison growth and why, and then respond with tailored solutions.”   

The report concludes that JRI also builds momentum for future justice system reform, and can leverage the time and resources invested in it to promote improvements in the operation of both the state and federal criminal justice systems.

The Pew Charitable Trusts, the Vera Institute of Justice, and the Council of State Governments Justice Center serve as technical assistance providers to the 17 states chronicled in the report: Arkansas, Delaware, Georgia, Hawaii, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, and West Virginia. The study includes detailed case studies for each state. 

The Justice Reinvestment Initiative State Assessment Report was written by Nancy La Vigne, the project’s principal investigator, along with a team of researchers from the Urban Institute: Samuel Bieler, Lindsey Cramer, Helen Ho, Cybele Kotonias, Deborah Mayer, David McClure, Laura Pacifici, Erika Parks, Bryce Peterson, and Julie Samuels. It was funded by the US Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance.

The Urban Institute is a nonprofit, nonpartisan policy research and educational organization that examines the social, economic, and governance challenges facing the nation. It provides information, analyses, and perspectives to public and private decisionmakers to help them address these problems and strives to deepen citizens' understanding of the issues and trade-offs that policymakers face.

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