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December 1, 2017

Looking into the politics and personnel of state-level criminal justice reforms

The December 2017 issue of the ABA Journal has this lengthy article on state-level reform efforts, giving particular attention to recent reforms in Louisiana and Alaska. In the magazine the article has the headline "“Rallying for Reform: Criminal justice reform may be languishing at the federal level, but it’s becoming a reality in the states with bipartisan support," and here is an excerpt:

Adam Gelb, director of the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Public Safety Performance Project, says 36 states have enacted some kind of criminal justice reform — eight of them more than once — over the past 10 years.

And although those reforms can be a struggle to get through legislatures, they tend to win approval — even in “red” states such as Louisiana — because they have bipartisan support. They bring together legislators with diverse backgrounds and interests, including controlling crime, reducing corrections costs, embracing religious ideas about redemption, reducing the size of government, grappling with the effect of imprisonment on families and minority communities, and questioning the morality of locking up so many people.

“The reason that it is so bipartisan and cross branch is that it meets many objectives,” says Alison Lawrence, Criminal Justice Program director for the National Conference of State Legislatures. “I would say behind all of it, everybody cares about public safety, and that’s the underlying factor.”...

According to the Urban Institute, which studies the outcomes of justice reinvestment, achieving a better return can be met in several ways.  Reducing sentences, in a thoughtful and politically palatable way, is one component.  But so are reducing the number of people held in lieu of bail and the time they’re held, expanding eligibility for parole and other ways to be released from prison, and providing alternatives to prison for probation and parole violations.

By reducing the number of prisoners, states save money — often hundreds of millions of dollars.  Then, states “reinvest” some of that money in programs they believe will reduce crime, and therefore the need for prisons.  That includes prison-based re-entry or job training programs, more probation and parole officers, and grants to community groups that help with re-entry-related problems like mental health and substance abuse.  States may also lift the legal restrictions they place on former offenders, such as eligibility for professional licenses.

States are receptive, Gelb says, in part because they’ve seen the success of earlier adopters — especially Texas, which is the widely acknowledged godfather of justice reinvestment.  In 2007, the Texas Department of Public Safety, which handles corrections, anticipated that it would need 14,000 to 17,000 more prison beds over the next five years.  So it asked the legislature for $2 billion.  Legislators blanched at that cost and instead tried to make the new prison beds unnecessary by spending $241 million on behavioral health and alternative sanctions programs.

Ten years — and several more bills — later, Texas has actually closed several prisons.  State authorities estimate that Texas has reduced its incarceration rate by 20 percent and its crime rate by 30 percent, all while avoiding $4 billion in costs.  It’s also become a model for other states, particularly its Southern neighbors.

December 1, 2017 at 04:58 PM | Permalink


Part of the reasons why some of these reforms win support is that they are not about reducing prison size per se but about redirecting resources in a way that both sides can agree on -- more efforts to treat non-violent offenders up front so that they don't go to prison, reducing supervision on those least likely to reoffend, so that prison space is available for violent offenders and so that probation officers have more time to supervise those offenders who are most likely to reoffend.

Posted by: tmm | Dec 1, 2017 5:47:59 PM

Decarceration 3%, murder surge 10%.

Posted by: David Behar | Dec 2, 2017 7:52:46 AM

Lets hope they (Texas and others) invest some of the savings in upgrading the remaining prison stock and improving the regimes currently endured by inmates and staff at all levels.

Posted by: peter | Dec 2, 2017 10:42:35 AM

Peter. Here is one improvement, at no additional tax expense, that would markedly improve the quality of life for prisoners and inmates. The lash. Right now, say to an inmate, stop acting like a fool, you get written up, and could lose your job as a guard. The lawyers have crippled all prison discipline with ruinous litigation. Prisoners cannot be disciplined thanks to liberal people like you.

Posted by: David Behar | Dec 2, 2017 12:14:18 PM

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