“Reinvestment” part of Justice Reinvestment Initiative being weakened, warns ACLU report

The Justice Reinvestment Initiative, a strategy to reduce corrections spending while lowering recidivism rates, is at risk of being watered down and even co-opted by the same forces that led to costly “tough on crime” policies, according to a report published this month by the American Civil Liberties Union.

Ending Mass Incarceration: Charting a New Justice Reinvestment warns that many states are embracing the cost-cutting aspects of JRI but neglecting reinvestment to improve safety in communities affected by high incarceration rates. The authors call for a widening of the usual channel between legislators and law-enforcement officials, with more community players coming together to shape and support JRI legislation. A recent MassINC report, Crime, Cost, and Consequences: Is It Time to Get Smart on Crime?, similarly calls for JRI to include “place-based strategies” and coalition-building (illustrated by the state’s Criminal Justice Policy Coalition).

In announcing the report, the ACLU concluded that, “while the JRI has played a significant role in softening the ground for criminal justice reform, it has not made significant reductions in the correctional populations or costs in most of the states in which it has worked.” The report’s authors urged the reaffirmation of “investment in high-incarceration communities” as a chief goal of JRI.

The report describes a watering-down effect as more states consider JRI proposals:

…among many lawmakers, the “Justice Reinvestment” label has come to stand for any correctional reform effort that is expected to save states money and improve public safety, but without the concomitant reinvestment in community and, it turns out, without significantly reducing correctional populations. Increasingly, stripped of its core purpose—to downsize corrections and increase community reinvestment—Justice Reinvestment risks becoming all things to all people.

One cited reason for this development is a lack of “demand-side advocacy from coalitions of local stakeholders and leaders for local reinvestment,” which means that any savings from corrections reform can be shifted to law enforcement agencies by default. The missing players can include municipal officials, “grassroots leaders,” and social service providers.

For example:

…the JRI entered Oklahoma in 2011 to work with a bipartisan working group of state officials. JRI recommendations focused on providing increased funding for police departments via an arrest-rate-driven grant program and allowing prosecutors to have veto power over an individual’s request for sentence modification. The primary reform focus was no longer prison population reduction; it had shifted to increasing funding for law enforcement and probation/parole staff, with a secondary emphasis on cost containment. These concessions to law enforcement were made early on, before any local advocacy organizations or community groups were brought into the discussion. This resulted in a weak bill in 2012; notably, the state’s 2014 budget contains no mention of the 2012 law and the law’s original supporters are now urging repeal.

The report includes examples where “targeted reinvestment in high incarceration communities” is forgotten during the drafting of JRI legislation: “[a bill enacted] in Pennsylvania in 2012 made no attempt to advance a goal of community reinvestment, and instead promoted redirecting the highest proportion of anticipated savings to local law enforcement authorities, even though the state’s overall crime rate had dropped 14 percent.”

One problem in shifting funds to reinvestment is structural:

Funding allocations make state imprisonment cost-free to local jurisdictions but require those jurisdictions to pay for placement into treatment or probation; these kinds of anomalous government funding streams that incentivize localities to push people upstream to state prisons instead of deploying more effective local strategies must be changed.

A possible solution, the authors note, is organizing support for reinvestment at the local level:

A key aspect of our proposed strategy is to focus on involvement of local municipal and county officials, as well as local system reform advocates, to press in coalition for reforms that will actually reduce the “local concentrations” of mass incarceration that prevail in the communities to which they are politically accountable. By virtue of their accountability to local constituents, local justice reinvestment coalitions would not just add to the demand for state legislative reforms, but they would be in a position to share the political risks entailed in legislating sentencing reforms and other difficult-to-attain legislation. And local officials have the authority to implement local policy changes that could result in major reductions in statewide correctional populations. […] We propose a series of focused campaigns in selected jurisdictions consisting of cross-disciplinary, multi-sector coalitions of players who can seize the moment to challenge the status quo and replace it with a system that is fair, just, and equitable.

The authors point to one example of success using this strategy:

…[an] example of effective state-level reforms resulting from local and state-based coalition building comes from Colorado, where the adult prison population has been declining (down seven percent since 2010) after decades of unabated growth. The Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition (CCJRC), founded in 1999 to reverse the trend of mass incarceration in Colorado, has had substantial influence in spurring this decline. … Today, CCJRC includes a network of over 112 organizations and faith communities and over 6,800 individual members throughout the state; it has intentionally built a diverse, bipartisan coalition that includes criminal justice reform organizations, educators, students, prisoners, former prisoners, prisoners’ family members, attorneys, mental health advocates, substance abuse treatment providers, racial justice advocates, victims’ advocates, child welfare professionals, various faith communities, fiscal conservatives, civil libertarians, business owners, and women’s organizations. Through involvement with the state’s Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice, many of CCJRC’s reform goals have gained the traction needed to enact important legislative victories, including many of the reforms proposed in this paper, such as establishing probation eligibility for people with two or more felony convictions, enacting drug sentencing reform, excluding felony drug possession as a trigger for habitual offender sentencing, reducing new admissions from parole revocations, and increasing earned good time.
For more on the challenges in implementing JRI and reentry programs, see our earlier post, “Reentry programs need coordination, more carrots and sticks, says DOJ-sponsored report.”

                     – Robert David Sullivan

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