Prison inefficiencies under scrutiny

To The Editor:

The high costs associated with corrections and inefficiencies within state prison systems have caused a number of states to reexamine their practices and embrace justice reinvestment, an evidence-based approach that reduces prison populations and reinvests savings into practices that can improve public safety and reduce costs.

Through the Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI), 17 states have used private and federal assistance to collect and analyze data on the drivers of their corrections populations and their costs, identify and implement responsive and efficient policies, and measure both the fiscal and public safety impacts of those changes.

A new report issued by the Urban Institute, Justice Reinvestment Initiative State Assessment Report, analyzes the experiences of the participating states. JRI is administered by the Bureau of Justice Assistance at the U.S. Department of Justice (BJA) and in partnership with the Vera Institute of Justice (Vera), Council of State Governments Justice Center and the Public Safety Performance Project of the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Vera worked with states in two phases. In Phase I, Vera helped Delaware and Louisiana analyze data, develop policy options, and adopt new policies. In Phase II, Vera is assisting Arkansas, Delaware, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Oregon, South Carolina, and South Dakota implement new policies, put reinvestment strategies into place, and measure performance.

The report concludes that several factors were driving prison costs and increasing populations, including unnecessary parole and probation revocations, sentencing policies, inefficient community supervision and insufficient resources, and parole system processing delays.

For example, Delaware passed legislation in April 2013 as a result of a JRI task force that requires implementation of an objective risk assessment instrument to help magistrates make informed decisions about pretrial release, makes available objective risk and needs assessment for judges to use at sentencing, supports improved community supervision practices, and creates incentives for individuals who are incarcerated and under supervision to complete evidence-based programs designed to reduce recidivism.

In Vera-supported states, the results have been encouraging:

Kentucky has saved $25 million by reducing the number of defendants held in jail prior to disposition by 5 percent, with no negative impact on public safety.

Georgia invested $17.5 million in mental health and drug accountability courts, residential substance abuse treatment programs, and risk assessment tools.

Louisiana reinvested $1.7 million in savings from institutional corrections into community-based substance abuse treatment in 2013.

Arkansas reduced its prison population by 9 percent from 2011 to 2012 and projects $875 million in savings over 11 years.

“Justice reinvestment is a team sport, and the collaboration we have seen between government leaders, the courts, state policymakers, and criminal justice stakeholders has resulted in encouraging progress,” said Peggy McGarry, Director of Vera’s Center on Sentencing and Corrections. “By investing in programs that address the causes of criminality and providing the necessary services to ensure successful reentry into society, we can lower costs, increase public safety, and help formerly incarcerated individuals reshape their lives.”

Vera Institute of Justice

The Vera Institute of Justice is a research and policy organization that combines expertise in research, demonstration projects, and technical assistance to help leaders in government and civil society improve the systems people rely on for justice and safety.

More from Around NYC