California leads decline in prison population, but reentry reform is uncertain

Last month the Department of Justice announced a 1.7 percent decline in the estimated US prison population from 2011 to 2012, marking the third consecutive year of slight decreases. There were 1,571,013 inmates in federal and state prisons at the end of last year, which is not too far off the all-time high of 1,615,487 in 2009. The decline was a bit steeper in Massachusetts: down 2.7 percent from 2011 to 2012, ending up at 11,308.

The biggest change by far was in California, whose prison population fell by 10.1 percent, to 149,569. But according to the DOJ report, much of this decline is attributable to the shifting of inmates from state prisons to local jails. Under the Public Safety Realignment (PSR) program, passed in 2011 as a response to overcrowded prisons, “nonviolent, nonserious, and nonsex” offenders have been diverted to local facilities. In two years, the share of state prison inmates who have been convicted of violent crimes rose from 59 percent to 70 percent.

PSR was an emergency measure passed in response to a Supreme Court ruling that the state’s prisons were crowded enough to constitute cruel and unusual punishment — but it also has implications for the success of reentry programs, a primary concern of Justice Reinvestment programs designed to reduce recidivism.

Jesse Jannetta, a researcher at the Urban Institute, writes that, in some ways, the shift of nonviolent inmates to local facilities may improve the effectiveness of reentry programs:

Compared with prisoners, people incarcerated in [local] jails are generally much closer to their families and to the social service organizations based in their communities. Shifting incarceration from prisons to jails therefore has the potential to enhance family reunification and engagement in community-based services. Staff from community agencies can more easily access inmates in local jails, building relationships and encouraging inmates to access their services after release.

Jannetta also points to some of the potential drawbacks, including limited resources for educational programs at local jails and disparities from one jurisdiction to another. And compared with federal and state prisons, there is little research on the effectiveness of reentry programs at the local level. Much more data is needed before the California reform can be considered a successful example of Justice Reinvestment, which stresses evidence-based policies.

Have we passed Peak Incarceration?

Reducing prison populations, and their attendant costs, was one of the original aims of Justice Reinvestment, but some advocates fear that the goals of the initiative have become muddled. In April, the ACLU released a report (see earlier post) warning that 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.” (Massachusetts, it should be noted, was not studied in the report because its Justice Reinvestment efforts have been so meager.)

And in response to the DOJ’s announcement of a (slightly) lower US prison population, Mike Konczal of the Washington Post’s Wonkblog expressed skepticism toward the idea that a push for government austerity will lead to a long-range reduction in prison populations: “Citizens experiencing uncertainty over their economic future … might demand more, rather than less, security and control.” In addition, “reducing the penal population might require spending more in the short term in order to do it right, which states are not in a position to do.”

But Konczal ends his column with an interesting parallel that could broaden the debate on how to reduce prison populations and improve reentry programs:

Reformers should take comfort from the idea that this isn’t the first time we’ve de-institutionalized our population. As University of Chicago professor Bernard Harcourt writes in “Reducing Mass Incarceration: Lessons from the Deinstitutionalization of Mental Hospitals in the 1960s,” the massive inpatient population in mental hospitals dropped almost 60 percent from 1965 to 1975.

Harcourt identifies three lessons from that movement that are applicable to and could accelerate a move away from mass incarceration. The first is using federal dollars to encourage state-level efforts to move people out of penitentiaries. The second would be better psychiatric care and technological innovation, such as GPS monitoring. And the third is shifting public perceptions of people who are incarcerated, documenting the prison abuses that have become the norm.

Regarding that final point, Konzcal refers to the new TV series Orange Is the New Black, which takes a mostly sympathetic view of inmates in a federal women’s prison. It’s far from certain that this kind of pop culture will provide a counterpoint to the “tough on crime” ethos that has lead to longer prison sentences and less money for rehabilitation/reentry programs, but a change in public opinion toward the role of prisons may ultimately be necessary for real reform.

             – Robert David Sullivan

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