Justice Reinvestment Initiative leads Prison Reform

The Best Of: The following article, first published on May 14, 2012, describes the critical role the “Justice Reinvestment Initiative”, led by the PEW Center for the States and the Council of State Governments, have had on the prison reform movement.

A recent Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) funded initiative is having an extraordinary effect on prison reform efforts in states across the nation. The “Justice Reinvestment Initiative” is a joint project of the PEW Center for the States, the Council of State Governmant and the Vera Institute They are providing assistance and support to states in an effort to reduce prison populations,  establish non-prison penalties for non-violent offenses, increase good time/work time for prisoners, and generally encouraging states to return or keep prisoners in local jurisdictions, while reinvesting funds saved by these reforms in “alternatives to prison”. The Council of State Government’s National Reentry Resource Center has a Resource Project Page devoted to the  “Justice Reinvestment Initiative” To access it, click on the page facsimile on the left.

According to information provided by BJA, “Justice Reinvestment is a data-driven approach to reduce corrections spending and re-direct savings to other criminal justice strategies that decrease crime and strengthen neighborhoods. They work closely with state and local policymakers to help design policies that manage the growth of the corrections system. They are finding ways to improve the availability of services, such as housing, substance abuse treatment, employment training, and positive social and family support for offenders returning to communities. They are also looking to reinvest savings generated from reductions in corrections spending to make communities safer, stronger, and healthier.”

What is incontrovertable, is that states are adopting the policy changes advocated and are passing ground-breaking reforms in many of the most conservative states in the nation (most recently Georgia, Oaklahoma, and Louisians; see articles in Facebook collumn on the right side of website).  To access comprehensive information on what the “Justice Reinvestment Initiative” is doing in a listed state, just click on the state below, and you will be linked directly to National Reentry Resource Center information:

California prison terms for violent criminals more than double

In an article published by the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, the Center disputes Governor Brown’s argument that all those who could safely be released from prison had already been released. The Center relies in part on a recent study by the Pew Center for the States (click on image on the left, to obtain a PDF of the PEW article, “Time Served; The High Cost, Low Return of Longer Prison Terms”)

The Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, relying on PEW data, argues that ”  California offenders who committed violent crimes can now expect to serve 7 years in prison — in 1990, they would have served less than 3. Looking at people who committed murder, those who were released in 2009 served an average of 16 years; now, they can expect to serve more than 50 years. This lengthening of sentences for violent crimes is a major reason California’s prisons are overflowing and will continue to do so. In 2009, nearly 100,000 of the state’s prison inmates were doing time for violent crimes, a number that will only grow as the exit door continues to recede.”

It would appear that Governor Brown’s suggestion to the rest of the nation, that they consider California as a model for Penal Reform, may be a bit premature. While the Governor’s realignment plan and funding are an important start in California’s Penal reform process, it would appear that we have a long way to go before we can describe the California Penal System California as a model.


HOPE: An Innovative Probation Strategy

There is a new intensive probation model that is getting a great deal of attention in the criminal justice world. Hawaii’s First Circuit Court Judge Steven Alm started “Hawaii’s Opportunity Probation with Enforcement”(HOPE) Program as a small pilot project in 2004. With success, HOPE has grown to 1500 probationers (one sixth of felony offenders on Oahu). HOPE is a relatively economical, intensive probation program, that is especially attractive in these financially challenging times.  The approach in a nutshell; scale back on court, treatment, and rehabilitation involvement , and ratchet up swift, immediate, and certain punshment, with an emphasis on monitoring, drug testing, and immediate warrants, arrest, and sanctions, (typically a week in custody for a violation). Also, reduce the paper work, use simpler forms, reduced hearing times and rely largely on processl assessments.

A recently released evaluation of HOPE  by the UCLA School of Public Afairs, is quite impressive, as is a PEW Center For The States publication  on the program. But as noted by the researchers themselves, these are not new concepts and most if not all have been tried before with mixed results. Previous research on intensive probation supervision (without treatment and rehabilitation components)  have not fared particularly well.  According to the UCLA study, one reason for the HOPE program’s success, may be the extraordinary leadership of Judge Alm in implementing the HOPE program program and in ultimately getting disperate criminal justice agencies to work together effectively.

There are always unanswered questions when any new sentencing program is introduced. What specifically works for targeted demographics, what components of the program are truely necessary, and in particular, can compliance continue beyond the term of probation or court jurisdiction? There are obviously no long term studies on the efficacy of HOPE, nor on the ability of the high risk offender to establish a new drug free, crime free life style once they leave HOPE. The science suggests that there willl be a “response burst” of offenses and drug abuse, once the suppressive effects of intensive supervision are removed. While not a scientist. I do know from experience, that programs with new approaches to old problems, inspired and capable personnel, and extraordinary leadership, often do extremely well while that leadership remains in place (sometimes called the “innovator’s effect”). And that a single program can be enormously successful, while similar programs find it hard to get it right. We will no doubt find answers to some of these questions in the years to come.

Project Hope and similar programs deserve their chance to prove themselves, and find their place in the spectrum of evidence based sentencing practices (whose roots interstingly, go back to the Enlightenment). In the end, HOPE uses many of the same principles that drug courts adopted and that have been scientifically validated over the past twenty years. While HOPE  has largely avoided the treatment, incentives, rehabilitation and courtroom aspects of drug court, there’s reason to believe that it may expand to provide  at least some of those services over time. As described in the UCLA study, “The HOPE program has a strong theoretical basis. That swiftness and certainty outperform severity in the management of offending is a concept that dates back to Beccaria (1764).”  One would hope that there is much to learn from this program, whose roots go back over three hundred years.


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