As the nation continues to climb out of a deep recession, public officials across the country are forced to consider whether incarceration is the best use of resources. For many years, the federal government has been helping states and localities devise smart responses to crime and reduce reliance on jails and prisons through solutions like the Justice Reinvestment Initiative.
Last Wednesday, when he unveiled his 2014 proposed budget, President Obama signaled that he wants to deepen that support. His budget would invest $85 million in this ongoing initiative.
What is justice reinvestment?
Justice reinvestment is designed to help states and localities make better decisions about how they use their scarce criminal justice resources. The federal government began providing justice reinvestment grants several years ago to help cash-strapped states and counties cut spending on corrections, improve public safety, and reduce the number of people behind bars. Seventeen states and eighteen local jurisdictions across the country are active justice reinvestment sites.
How does justice reinvestment work?
The initiative relies on rigorous data collection and analysis conducted by technical assistance providers to help sites identify the key drivers of correctional populations and costs: who’s in prison, how long they stay there, when they get out, who ends up returning, and who costs the system the most money. The drivers vary widely by jurisdiction, reflecting each state’s sentencing policies and the local population’s characteristics.
Source: Council of State Governments Justice Center.
How are justice reinvestment sites doing?
In our role as coordinator and assessor of the national Justice Reinvestment Initiative, we at the Urban Institute have seen the significant progress that justice reinvestment sites have made in responding to these drivers. Two of the initiative’s sponsors, the Council of State Governments Justice Center and the Pew Charitable Trusts, highlighted this progress in a brief distributed last week to Capitol Hill lawmakers and the initiative's chief funder, DOJ's Bureau of Justice Assistance. Drawing on sites’ experiences, the brief shares lessons for reducing recidivism and curtailing correctional spending.
What types of lessons have been learned?
One lesson is that sites have found methods for reinvesting cost savings in evidence-based, recidivism-reducing strategies. North Carolina recently passed the Justice Reinvestment Act, which, through a series of identified cost-saving strategies, will allow the state to reduce its prison population, generating a projected $560 million in savings. The state intends to reinvest $8 million of these savings in community-based programs designed to reduce supervised offenders’ risk of recidivating. Similarly, Pennsylvania’s justice reinvestment effort led to policy changes projected to yield $250 million in savings over a five-year period, giving legislators the confidence to make an upfront investment of $21 million in crime reduction strategies, probation and parole system improvements, and victims’ services in FY 2014 alone.
The Obama administration’s proposed investment in the Justice Reinvestment Initiative would support efforts like those in North Carolina and Pennsylvania to help states and localities save money while ensuring that public safety goals are maintained. And in a time of significant fiscal strain, that’s good news for criminal justice officials and the public.