Ten States Exchanging Tactics to Save Money and Reform Criminal Justice
A delegation from Georgia participated in a “Dialogue on Strategies to Save Money, Reform Criminal Justice and Keep the Public Safe,” on Friday, May 6 at the _ in Washington, D.C.
State Officials Get Smart on Crime
by Rob Boisseau
_ News Service
May 9, 2011
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Former Virginia Attorney General Mark Earley had been listening to a roomful of state legislators, aides, district attorneys, defense attorneys and judges talk about how to fight crime. When it was his turn to speak, Earley looked at the audience and asked a simple question: How many of those present ever had a family member or friend in prison?
More than half of the hands shot up.
“Incarceration rates in this country have grown exponentially since the ‘Tough on Crime’ policies of the 1990s,” said Earley. “We lock up so many people that one in every 31 adults is under supervision of a government agency, whether a prison, parole or probation authority, at any given time.”
Earley, state officials and criminal justice experts met in Washington, D.C., on May 6 to discuss how states can revamp their criminal justice systems, an effort brought about in large part because of anemic state budgets. At a time when state programs face stagnation or elimination, the costs of arresting, prosecuting, defending, jailing and supervising offenders released from jail are under tough scrutiny. Drug offenses, misdemeanors and an ever-expanding list of crimes categorized as felonies burden the system.
In 2009 more than 2 million people were either in jail or prison in the United States. The 1.4 million incarcerated in state facilities in 2008 cost an average of more than $23,000 each; in 2009 New York spent approximately $45,000 to house each detainee before trial. At any time, half a million individuals sit in jail awaiting trial, having not yet been convicted of a crime; nevertheless, the nation’s taxpayers spend $9 billion to keep them locked up. State and local governments spent approximately $52 billion in 2008 to house inmates and for all other aspects of corrections.
Crippling state deficits and the cost of holding so many in prison play a defining role in what many see as a seismic shift away from the “tough on crime” policies of the 1980s and 1990s toward what some in criminal justice call a “smart on crime” approach. State legislators on both sides of the aisle are examining ways to fight crime and keep communities safe without breaking the budget. They are joined by a diversity of interest groups — from the conservative Right on Crime Campaign to the ACLU — which advocate for more effective, efficient ways to deal with crime.
“There is a growing consensus in the country that we lock up too many people for too long at too great an expense, both financial and social,” explained Bruce Green, chair of the _’s Criminal Justice Section. For Green and the other attendees, the goal is “a better criminal justice system that keeps us safe and saves us money.”
Cost saving comes down to three key objectives: decriminalizing minor offenses such as dog leash violations or feeding the homeless, providing alternatives such as house arrest for low-risk offenders, and investing in job training and substance abuse treatment programs that reduce the likelihood that individuals commit additional crimes and return to prison.
States’ initiatives in these areas have proven very successful. Pat Colloton, a Republican member of the Kansas House of Representatives, led the charge in her state to reduce the billions spent on corrections.
“We ran a pilot in Topeka, Kansas, with the highest risk population most likely to come back [to prison],” she said. “Offenders had an 82 percent likelihood of returning to prison; we reduced that to 32 percent.” The program offered work support, transportation to work, housing, substance abuse and mental health assistance, and family counseling to offenders re-entering the community.
Statewide, Kansas’ prison population dropped 7 percent, parole revocations by 50 percent, and the new crimes committed by parolees plummeted 36 percent.
Kentucky Supreme Court Chief Justice John Minton Jr. endorsed risk assessment tools as a way to help courts decide which offenders pose a significant public danger or flight risk. Those who don’t can be released on bond until their hearing, saving the incarceration expense. “There is a growing need for evidence-based decision making,” said Minton.
Minton called criminal justice reform an “economically prudent thing to do.”
In many states, reforming the criminal justice system is an opportunity to get offenders who pose little risk to their communities out of jail, and put violent criminals in. William Shepherd, who until recently was Florida’s statewide prosecutor, said he faced opposition to anti-gang legislation because money became the key driving issue.
“The main pushback we got [to anti-gang legislation] was about prison bed space,” he said. “We don’t want the prisons filled with a bunch of habitual traffic offenders, we want the gang members.”
Several attendees on May 6 expressed concern that those facing election could be painted as “soft on crime.” The 1988 presidential race was rocked by allegations and political advertisements run against Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis who supported a weekend furlough program during which William “Willie” Horton raped a Maryland woman. Although more than two decades have passed since that race, Willie Horton remains in the political lexicon.
Anne Swern, first assistant district attorney in Brooklyn, N.Y., cautioned the assembled policymakers against abandoning effective criminal justice reform in tight budget times. “I don’t recommend you sit back on your laurels and say ‘I can’t do anything … that’s offensive to me and offensive to taxpayers.”