Justice Reforms Bring Costs Down in 17 States


New research out from the Urban Institute shows that 17 states have been able to bring justice system related costs down through reforms. The reforms were part of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI). Through JRI, sponsored by the US Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) in partnership with the Pew Charitable Trusts, states receive federal dollars to assess, revamp, and monitor the performance of their criminal justice systems.

States are testing a range of strategies designed to yield better public safety returns on their corrections spending. Total projected savings across all 17 states amount to as much as $4.6 billion. For states that participated in JRI, stakeholders had to show bipartisan support and support throughout all three branches of government. This approach has been successful in increasing collaboration and information sharing between justice efforts and the legislative process.

The 17 states chronicled in the report are: Arkansas, Delaware, Georgia, Hawaii, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, and West Virginia.

In South Carolina, corrections spending rose 500% over the past 25 years, and its prison population tripled. Increased housing of nonviolent offenders, a growing number of returning parolees and probationers, and declining use of parole drove this growth. The state responded with reforms such as strengthening supervision and enhancing parole release decisionmaking. Since implementing the reforms, the state has saved more than $7 million and prevented the return of 1,000 probationers and parolees to prison.

As with any large-scale reform initiative, there are challenges involved. Report authors note that maintaining stakeholder buy-in can be difficult as the results of justice reforms may take many years to manifest. Reforms included in the JRI program like reducing the number of parole revocations tied to technical violations can significantly cut costs, but often require a culture change in zero tolerance agencies and offices. This is also true for states that are shifting to a community based response to preventing recidivism, which requires buy-in from local housing organizations, the non-profit community, education and other areas of a locality that may not be already involved with the justice system and its populations.

Overall, the changes in the 17 states present a compelling case and could provide national templates for critical issues like sentencing reform, and management of prison populations. These issues may be even more difficult to deal with in states that have privatized their prison systems and are in some cases incentivized to maintain longer prison stays, or recommend prison in more cases to fulfill existing agreements with outside corrections administrators.