COST-CUTTING, PRISON POPULATION-REDUCING STRATEGY SEES SUCCESS ACROSS 17 STATES
A study released on Monday by the Urban Institute analyzes a cost-effective, evidence-based strategy that some states are using to reduce their prison population. These 17 states are employing a tactic, known as “justice reinvestment.” This relatively new strategy involves cutting prison costs, and using a percentage of the dollars saved to “reinvest” in alternatives, such as community-based treatment, reentry programs, and problem-solving courts. The states participating in the Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI), have received a total of $17 million in program funding from the government and Pew Charitable Trusts. Since employing the JRI strategy, the states have reinvested approximately $166 million into incarceration alternatives, and could see a long-term return of $4.6 billion, according to the study.
California, Texas, and Florida—the states with the largest prison populations—are not a part of this federal “justice reinvestment” program.
The Crime Report’s Ted Gest says that with the recently approved allocation of more government money for the program (in the new budget), more states could join in:
Last month, the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics found that prison populations nationwide declined for the third consecutive year in 2012, but the number went down by less than 30,000: 1,599,000 to 1,570,400. The jail population rose in 2012, and the U.S. total of offenders behind bars remains well over 2 million, prompting other efforts to deal with “mass incarceration.”
The federally supported justice reinvestment program does not include the federal prison system itself or the three states with the highest prison populations: California, Texas, and Florida.
Texas has operated its own version of justice reinvestment, saying in 2007 that it averted $684 million in projected prison building.
Federal support for justice reinvestment in the states has been modest so far–only $6 million annually–but the Obama administration proposed a big increase for the current federal spending year, and in its recently approved appropriations bill, Congress allocated $28 million for it.
In an NY Times editorial, Bill Keller discusses five strategies for reforming the criminal justice system and bringing down the prison population across the nation. Here are the first two:
SENTENCING: America has long been more inclined than other developed countries to treat crime as a disposal problem; “trail ’em, nail ’em and jail ’em,” is our tough-on-crime slogan. Beginning in the ‘70’s, rising crime rates, compounded by the crack epidemic and the public fear it aroused, set off a binge of punitive sentencing laws. Three-strikes, mandatory minimum sentences and requirements that felons serve a minimum portion (often 85 percent) of their sentence lengthened the time offenders — especially drug offenders, and especially black men — spent in lockup. Restoring common sense to sentencing is the obvious first step in downsizing prisons. New York rolled back its notorious Rockefeller drug laws, California has softened its three-strikes law and several other states have tinkered with rigid sentencing laws. But there is stiff resistance from prosecutors, who use the threat of long sentences to compel cooperation or plea deals. Reformers concede that those draconian laws have had a modest effect on the crime rate, but because of them we are paying to imprison criminals long past the time they present any danger to society. “Keeping a 60-year-old in prison until he’s 65 does close to zero for crime rates,” said Jeremy Travis, president of John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “If we’re really seeing something deep going on here, the proof will be whether legislators have the political will to roll back sentencing.”
SUPERVISION: For every inmate in our state and federal prisons, another two people are under the supervision of probation or parole. Caseworkers are often poorly paid and usually overwhelmed. About all they can do is keep count of an offender’s violations until the system decides to kick that offender back to prison. A few jurisdictions have tried to make parole and probation less of a revolving door back to prison, with some encouraging results. They focus attention on offenders considered most likely to commit crimes. They send caseworkers out of the office and into the community. They use technology (ankle bracelets with GPS, A.T.M.-style check-in stations, Breathalyzer ignition locks to keep drinkers from driving) to enhance supervision. They employ a disciplinary approach called “swift and certain,” which responds promptly with a punishment for missing an interview or failing a drug test. The punishments start small, then escalate until the offender gets the message and changes his behavior — preferably before he has to be sent back to prison. Mark Kleiman, a U.C.L.A. public policy professor who is a champion of the technique, says, “It’s basically applying the principles of parenting to probation.”
SAN FRANCISCO PIONEERS MOVEMENT AWAY FROM ZERO-TOLERANCE SCHOOL DISCIPLINE
San Francisco has set an important precedent for schools across the nation by officially limiting the role of officers on campuses. An agreement between the school district and the SFPD—drafted, in part, by Coleman Advocates and Public Counsel, with input from students, themselves—creates a new system of steps to be followed before a student can be arrested. The agreement also requires school officers to take at least one day of free training in more effective “restorative justice” methods of handling disruptive kids.
Susan Ferriss, of the Center for Public Integrity, has done some excellent reporting on this new agreement (and other related school discipline stories here, and here). We recommend reading Ferriss’ entire piece, but here are some clips:
Karn Saetang, an organizer with Coleman Advocates for Children and Youth in San Francisco, said: “We’re putting the responsibility for student behavior back where it belongs, with educators, students and parents, not with police. When police get involved in school discipline, it sends all the wrong messages to students.”
Coleman Advocates, which pushes the city to fund children’s services, helped draft the agreement, along with Public Counsel, the nation’s largest public interest law firm, which has been involved in reforming discipline policies in various cities.
…San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr told ABC News 7 earlier this month that kids helped draft the agreement: “I think it’s important that we demonstrate to the kids that what’s important to them is important to us, too,” he said.
The agreement spells out requirements for graduated steps before a student can be arrested, and details limits on how arrests are to be carried out on campuses, so they are not disruptive or public, if possible, and are not conducted in connection with behavior allegedly committed outside school unless students are in danger.
Police have discretion but “shall make every effort” not to arrest and refer students to probation authorities until a student commits a third offense after prior admonishments and counseling for low-level infractions. These infractions could include minor school fights that have sometimes been criminalized as battery, battery against a school employee, resisting arrest, disturbing the peace and possession of marijuana for personal use.
The agreement also requires that officers refrain from questioning detained students for at least an hour or until parents have “sufficient time to travel” to a campus from their jobs or home.
“I think this clause is very important — that students are questioned in the presence of their parents,” said Sandra Lee Fewer, president of the board of education.
Fewer also insisted that the agreement contain the word “shall” as part of a requirement that school resource officers who are based at schools receive at least one day of free training, sponsored by the district, in methods of ‘restorative’ justice. That’s a regime of in-school discipline the district has adopted in an effort to get students to own up to disruption and problems they’ve caused — and, in turn, receive help to address the roots of their poor behavior.
OP-ED: LESSONS TO BE FOUND IN LAPD’S HISTORY FOR LASTING LASD REFORM
In an op-ed for the LA Times, Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the UC Irvine School of Law, and Miriam Krinsky, a policy consultant for the California Endowment (who also served as the executive director of the Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence), suggest that important lessons can be gleaned from the LAPD’s history of serious misconduct and subsequent federally-enforced reform when fixing the Sheriff’s Department.
In particular, Krinsky and Chemerinsky call for civilian oversight, and for an outside (non-LASD) leader to take over the department. Here are some clips:
For decades, the LAPD was plagued by a culture that tolerated, and at times encouraged, civil rights violations. Every time there was a major incident of misconduct, department and city leaders said the misconduct was the result of just a “few bad apples.” A study would be done and there would be proposals for reform. Some would be adopted; most would be ignored. The problem would be deemed solved until the next incident precipitated the same pattern of responses.
This cycle ended with the Rampart scandal in 2000, which exposed officers in an anti-gang unit who planted evidence on innocent people and lied in court to gain convictions. In the wake of these revelations, the Justice Department informed city officials that it was contemplating suing Los Angeles for a pattern and practice of civil rights violations. The city entered into a consent decree that mandated many changes overseen by a monitor and a federal judge. Mayor James Hahn appointed a police chief from outside the department, William J. Bratton. Real reforms occurred and the LAPD today is a vastly different department.
Important lessons can be drawn from this experience. First, civilian oversight is essential. A police or sheriff’s department is in many ways a paramilitary organization. Civilian engagement and a transparent vehicle for accountability is critical…
It is also important to bring in leadership from outside the sheriff’s office. The Christopher Commission, and every major study of the LAPD, found that the central problem was the culture of the department. Studies of the sheriff’s office have said the same thing. It is difficult for a person who is a product of that culture and environment to be the one to change it. It is not coincidental that the major changes in the LAPD occurred only after a strong leader from outside the department was appointed as its chief.
(Do go read the rest of this worthwhile op-ed.)