Kentucky Passes Legislation to Address Out-of-Control Corrections Costs

On March 3, 2011, Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear signed into law HB 463—a criminal justice reform bill designed to decrease the state’s prison population, reduce incarceration costs, reduce crime and increase public safety. The Public Safety and Offender Accountability Act was a strong bipartisan effort, passing the Senate unanimously and the House by a vote of 96 to 1. According to the Pew Center for the States, the Act “puts Kentucky at the forefront of states advancing research-driven criminal justice policies designed to protect public safety, hold offenders accountable and control corrections costs.”

Kentucky’s corrections budget increased from $30 million in 1980 to nearly $470 million in 2010, and its prison population rose along with it—growing nearly 80 percent between 1997 and 2009. That year, Kentucky had the highest incarceration rate in the nation. But despite the dramatic increase in costs, Kentucky’s crime rate remained about the same. These bipartisan reforms look to change that.

The Act’s many reforms are estimated to result in cost-savings of $422 million over 10 years to the Kentucky taxpayer, and will seek to stop the revolving door for lower-risk, non-violent offenders. By doing so, this should open up more prison space for violent and career criminals. And, similar to the recent bipartisan Arkansas reform act, the legislature agreed that half of the savings will be reinvested in efforts to reduce recidivism, including strengthening probation and parole and programs for substance abusing offenders.

As Governor Beshear said in regards to the Act, “it enables [Kentucky] to continue to be tough on crime but at the same time to be smarter about it.”

Arkansas Enacts “Smart on Crime” Reforms

On March 22, Arkansas Governor Mike Beebe enacted significant corrections reform in Arkansas by signing Senate Bill 750—the Public Safety Improvement Act—after it was passed unanimously in the Senate and 79-14 in the House. After initially drawing opposition from prosecutors, the measure won endorsements from the Arkansas Prosecuting Attorneys Association as well as associations representing police chiefs, sheriffs, county judges and circuit judges.

In Arkansas, the prison system holds thousands more prisoners than it has the capacity to house, resulting in hundreds of state convicts backed up in county jails awaiting bed space. Without the bill, those prison costs were expected to increase by $1.1 billion over the next decade. However, the Act lessens sentences for some nonviolent offenses and expands alternative-sentencing programs such as drug courts. It also allows the state Department of Community Correction to restore 49 positions for parole and probation officers. These reforms are expected to reduce the increasing prison costs by $875 million.

As State Rep. Darrin Williams correctly noted, “[Arkansas] must be tough on crime, but we must also be smart on crime.” The Act does not touch any violent crimes, and the anticipated prison savings will be reinvested in evidence-based community supervision and programs designed to reduce recidivism and hold offenders accountable.

From The Economist: “They All Come Home”

On the heels of last week’s Pew Report on Recidivism, The Economist has published an article on effective re-entry strategies, including Newark’s Ready, Willing and Able and New York’s Exodus.  ”Of the 301 people who completed the Exodus programme in 2010,” the article notes, “only nine went back to prison.”

The most important observation in the article may this one: “In 2008 George Bush signed the Second Chance Act, which hoped to break the cycle of reoffending and, at the same time, increase public safety and rebuild families (more than half of prisoners are parents). But most of the innovation has been at state and local level.

Right On Crime has made this same point.  There are areas of criminal justice reform in which the federal government may be able to play a modest role — and the Second Chance Act could be one of them — but criminal justice is largely a state and local issue, and real reform can only come from the state and local level.  Conservatives are the ones who best understand the virtues of local control and decentralized decision-making, so they are the ones best-situated to push genuine reform forward.

Reforms Needed to Better Serve At-Risk Youth

The Legislative Budget Board (LBB) recently released a report providing legislative recommendations for the delivery of services to at-risk youth in Texas.  In doing so, the LBB examined the case files of 252 juvenile offenders, making the following findings:

  • More than half of the offenders had a “substance abuse issue”
  • Nearly half had a “mental health issue”
  • More than one-third “have experienced some type of early childhood trauma”
  • A quarter “have been a victim of abuse or neglect”
  • About one-fifth of them have been involved in a Child Protective Services intervention

Altogether, the report found that of the 252 juvenile offenders studied, 74 percent have experienced at least one of the above issues.

In light of these findings, State Rep. James White has pledged to work with members of the House Corrections Committee to reform the way that state agencies serve these at-risk youth. According to White, “a lot of social issues contribute to delinquent behavior, and many youth do not receive needed services until they commit crimes and are referred to the local juvenile probation department.”

Incorporating crime prevention into school-based programs, streamlining duplicative services and assessments, and streamlining duplicative services and assessments, and intervening effectively with those youths who simply misbehave in school to divert them from the juvenile justice system, are among the potential reforms the LBB report suggests ought to be considered.  As Rep. White argues, “if we can identify young people who are showing at-risk indicators before they engage in criminal behavior, we hopefully can offer services… preventing incarceration.”

The report is valuable because it does not recommend throwing more money at the juvenile crime problem, but instead highlights how through better collaboration and coordination among school, social services providers, and the juvenile justice system and an emphasis on early intervention can maximize the results achieved through existing resources.

All These Years Later, Methadone is Still a Complicated Question

Today, The Atlantic is running a new piece on an old question: is methadone treatment is sensible way to address opiate addiction among prison inmates?

The writer, Jessica Wapner, comes down gingerly in favor of MMT (methadone maintenance treatment), in part because of the cost-savings that it may present: “One comprehensive study found a cost benefit to taxpayers of $4.00 for every dollar spent on MMT. In other words, drug addicts cost the country more than recovering drug addicts. Drug use carries a high risk of hepatitis C and HIV transmission, both costly to treat, and of course takes a toll on the criminal justice system and many other taxpayer-funded services.”

Critics of MMT, however, raise the reasonable point that the treatment may simply be replacing one addiction with another.  Rudy Giuliani, in particular, took a famous stance against methadone in the 1990s, saying ”[i]f it’s necessary for transition, then of course it should be used for transition….If you’re going to keep somebody permanently enslaved to methadone for the rest of their lives, then I have real questions about your common sense.”

Either way, conservatives need to be thinking hard about how to address opiate addiction because its correlation to crime is virtually beyond debate.  A 1997 National Institute of Health study indicated that an astonishing 95% of heroin addicts committed a crime over the course of an eleven-year observation period.

Bill Encourages Underage Drinkers to Seek Medical Help in Emergencies

On Wednesday, a bill passed the Texas Senate that may help address one of the many problems associated with underage drinking. Senate Bill 1331, which would allow minors to receive immunity from alcohol-related charges when seeking emergency medical help, was introduced by Senator Kirk Watson. According to the Senator, the bill would prevent minors from “[getting] into trouble for doing the right thing.”

While the bill grants immunity to the first person seeking medical assistance for the incapacitated person, it also includes a provision for the mandatory punishment of individuals convicted of coercing others into consuming alcohol. The impetus for these two provisions stems from the tragic case of Carson Starkey—a California Polytechnic State University student who died from alcohol poisoning when his fellow fraternity members failed to seek emergency help. Carson Starkey’s mother, Julia Starkey, praised the bill as “lifesaving legislation,” adding that her son “would be alive today if his peers had not been afraid to get him help for fear of getting themselves in trouble.”

Local Jail Population Declines for Second Straight Year

According to a report released last week, the local jail inmate population in the United States declined for the second straight year. The annual report, released by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, analyzes patterns of growth and decline in jail populations and found that the jail population declined by 2.4 percent during the 12-month period studied. Unlike prisons, jails are mainly operated by local law enforcement agencies and typically hold inmates while they await court action or serve a sentence of one year or less.

Los Angeles County led the nation with the largest decline—a drop of over 3,000 inmates—while the Phoenix, Houston, Fresno, and Philadelphia areas each reported declines of over 1,000. Other highlights from the report include the following:

  • Between midyear 2009 and midyear 2010, the confined inmate population in county and city jails (748,728) declined by 2.4% (18,706 inmates).
  • On June 30, 2010, adults represented 99% of all jail inmates. Males accounted for 87.7%, and females accounted for 12.3%.

The estimated rated capacity for all jail jurisdictions at midyear 2010 reached 866,974 beds, an increase of 2.0% (17,079 beds) from midyear 2009.

National Crime Victims’ Rights Week

This week is National Crime Victims’ Rights Week. Right On Crime is recognizing the week with a piece by Pat Nolan on The Huffington Post. Nolan is Vice President of Prison Fellowship, a Right on Crime signatory, and a recipient of the “Victims’ Advocate Award” from Parents of Murdered Children. Nolan’s piece is printed in its entirety below:

Crime harms people, and it should be our goal to repair that damage. The needs of victims of crime are often ignored in our justice system. Most offenders are not held accountable to repay their victims. That’s because our criminal justice system defines crime as an offense against the state, not against the victim. You can see this in the way criminal cases are titled: The State v. Defendant. Crime is defined as “law breaking” rather than “victim harming,” and the purpose of the criminal justice system is to maintain order by punishing the offenders for breaking the law and trying to ensure that they do not break the law again. Victims’ desires and needs are usually not considered. Unfortunately, this leaves the victim out in the cold.

This week (April 10-16) is National Crime Victims’ Rights Week — a time set aside to call attention to the needs of victims and promote their inclusion in the criminal justice process. I hope you will use this week to focus on the needs of the true consumers of the corrections system — those who have been personally harmed by an offender.

In today’s corrections system there is no incentive for the prosecutor to seek reparation for the victims. Traditional district attorney performance measures count the number of cases processed, the number of convictions, and the overall conviction rate. However, these volume measurements only reflect an increase in crime, not service to those wronged by crime. To truly measure the accomplishments of a district attorney’s office or probation department, victim satisfaction and restitution must be used as performance measures as well.

In addition, many victims often want to meet with their offenders, and are sometimes even moved to forgive them. There are several excellent programs that prepare victims and offenders for such a meeting. These Victim-Offender programs are called by various names: reconciliation, mediation, or dialogue. Victims who choose to participate are given the opportunity to express their true feelings about what occurred, ask questions of the offender, and suggest ways that the offender can begin to make things right. According to assessments of several programs in the Midwest, victims’ goals were to recover some losses, help the offenders stay out of trouble, and have a real part in the criminal justice process.

A nationwide survey found 95 percent of cases resolved through victim-offender mediation result in a written agreement — 90 percent of which are completed within one year, far exceeding the average restitution collection rate of just 20 to 30 percent. This is largely due to the fact that during mediation, the offender typically does not receive a conviction on their record, and are able to maintain employment, with some of their wages going to their victim.

Nearly four in five victims who went through a mediation process said they were satisfied with the results, which far exceeds the satisfaction of just 57 percent for victims who went through the traditional court system.

Mediation allows the victim to give the cry of their heart at the damage they have endured as a result of the crime. This gives them their own voice in the process — without being filtered through the voice of a government official. Moreover, most offenders when hearing how they have harmed the victims are moved to apologize and for the first time understand the impact of their transgression, which some researchers say lowers the number of individuals who re-offend. For example, the 1,298 juveniles who participated in mediation during the aforementioned survey were 32 percent less likely to re-offend than if they had gone through the traditional process. Alternative solutions, like mediation, give a voice to victims and work towards breaking the cycle of crime.

Victims may sustain physical injury, monetary loss, and emotional suffering. The crime may disrupt their lives temporarily — or for as long as they live. To be victimized is to feel powerless, and victims often need help regaining an appropriate sense of control over their lives. Victims also need to be vindicated — declared “not guilty” of being victimized.

However, victims not only need systemic change, they also need practical help that we individually can provide. Some of the ways you can help victims are:

• Provide immediate relief, such as food, lodging, house cleaning, medical care, and crime-scene cleanup.
• Accompany them to court; let them know you are there to support them.
• Keep them informed of the status of their case.
• Drive them to doctors’ appointments.
• Help them complete applications for reimbursement for losses from victim restitution funds.
• Make their home more secure.
• Spend time with them. Companionship is important.
• Listen to them and make sure they realize that they are not at fault and did not deserve what happened to them.
• Pray with them.
• Find out how they can be informed of any parole hearing on their case. It is important that you do not tell them that they must forgive the offender. At the appropriate time, the Holy Spirit will work in their hearts. It is not up to us to push them toward forgiveness.

In December 2010, I helped launch Right on Crime — a nationwide conservative criminal justice reform initiative. This project has made a high priority for victims’ rights. We work with policymakers to ensure victims are treated with dignity and respect and given the choice to participate, receive restitution, and even reconcile, when appropriate, with suitable and truly repentant offenders. Right on Crime believes the amount and share of restitution should be recorded and used as a performance measure for probation and parole systems.

We need to refocus the criminal justice system on victims as the primary consumers of justice and ensure restitution is collected first, followed by any fines and fees owed to the government. During National Crime Victims’ Rights Week, let us remember those who have been wronged by offenders and make certain they are given a greater role in the process of achieving justice.

A Conservative Approach to Indigent Defense?

Late last year, The Cato Institute published an intriguing paper on indigent defense reform. It is an attempt to apply limited government principles to an an exceptionally difficult criminal justice problem.

The authors, Stephen Schulhofer and David Friedman, begin by agreeing with the central holding of Gideon v. Wainwright that every criminal defendant has a right to counsel protected by the Sixth Amendment. “Of all the services that governments provide to the poor,” the authors argue, “[right to counsel] is arguably the one most defensible on libertarian grounds [because] judicial proceedings, including the opportunity to present a defense, are an intrinsic part of a broader service that government provides to the public as a whole – law enforcement and social protection.”

Of course, just because a person has the right to a lawyer, it does not mean they can afford one. In those instances, the state provides a lawyer. This is essentially a top-down system in which the government directly provides a service – and like any top-down government-provided service, it is inadequate. Public defenders across the country are overworked and they cannot reasonably provide effective representation. (According to a recent New York Times article, the Public Defender in Missouri is literally turning away cases.) In some jurisdictions that lack a public defender, the Court selects a private lawyer to represent the defendant, but the Court is not necessarily interested in obtaining the best defense. It is more interested in moving its docket, so it selects a lawyer whom it knows is likely to plead out quickly and move on. Also, the Court must approve the defense attorney’s expenditures (which can be as low as $80 per case), so it exerts effective control over the defendant’s presentation of his case – although it is not exerting similar control over the prosecutor, whose expenditures it does not oversee.

Schulhofer and Friedman looked at this issue the way conservatives often look at education. Conservatives want all young people to get an education, and they are willing to pay for it, but they often do not want the government to build schools – because it tends to do a terrible job of educating kids. Why not let the private sector build the schools while the government merely provides vouchers for parents to select the private school of their choice? In similar fashion, the Cato paper suggests replacing the inefficient indigent defense system with a voucher system. Indigent defendants can be provided with vouchers — and perhaps a list of options – and they can select whomever they prefer. It is a market-based solution that emphasizes personal liberty and minimizes the role of government.

It would be premature to announce that Schulhofer and Friedman have solved the indigent defense crisis in America. Their idea has limitations, which they acknowledge and address in the paper, and until it is implemented, the benefits of the plan are only theoretical. They should be lauded, however, for trying to bring a limited government perspective to a public policy issue that is desperately in need of reform.

Texans: Money for Prisons Lowest Priority

The Texas Lyceum, a non-partisan leadership organization, conducted a survey of 725 Texans in late September 2010 and the results to one question were particularly striking:

Which of the following would be your FIRST priority for maintaining or increasing funding during the next round of state budget negotiations?

First Choice         Second Choice

27%                         26%                 Aid to public schools (K-12)

20%                        22%                  Supplements to local school districts

13%                        11%                  Funding for universities and junior colleges

30%                        33%                  Health care for the elderly, mentally ill, and children

3%                          7%                     Funding for prisons

6%                          2%                     Don’t know/Refused/NA

The poll also found only 4% of respondents felt that crime and drugs were the most serious problem facing the state.

The results of the budget priorities question, however, are most striking. The phrasing of the question is untimely because it was clear then and even clearer today that all parts of the budget are going to be cut. Whatever the wording, the heart of the question is about priorities. On that score, it is clear that Texas voters overwhelmingly rate other functions of government as higher priorities than maintaining business as usual in our prison system.

Certainly, Texans almost universally would agree that public safety is a core function of government – perhaps the most important one – and that prisons are needed to protect individuals from dangerous criminals. Accordingly, this result should be interpreted perhaps as an indication that Texans believe that too much taxpayer money is already being spent on prisons because their role has been overextended.

It is no secret that Texas has one of the nation’s highest incarceration rates, though it has dropped from the second to the fourth highest rate in the last couple of years. Most Texans would probably guess that the primary cost driver when it comes to prisons is that Texas has 156,000 inmates, of which two-thirds entered for a nonviolent offense. This includes about 5,200 incarcerated for drug possession with no prior felony and more than 1,000 locked up for hot check writing. Texans may also intuitively know that, as with most areas of state government, Texas is less inefficient than other states – Texans spend $18,000 per inmate per year compared to the national average of about $27,000. So while operational efficiencies can and should be achieved, such as by consolidating units, the way to achieve the most savings is by reducing unnecessary incarceration and redirecting appropriate nonviolent offenders into community supervision programs that provide more public safety per dollar spent.

The public is right. The 2011 legislative session and the shortfall are a great opportunity to enact reforms that will both save money and, more importantly, make Texans safer.