Gov. Chris Christie’s Plan to Expand Drug Courts

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a former federal prosecutor, has unveiled a new plan to expand the state’s Drug Court program and to allow judges to order non-violent addicts to participate in mandatory drug treatment.

The new plan should save the state millions of dollars. New Jersey currently spends $49,000 per inmate per year, one of the highest costs in the country, but rehab for drug offenders—which is much less costly than incarceration—could cut costs dramatically. The new drug courts are also projected to deliver better outcomes. According to the Governor’s Office, the rate at which drug court graduates are re-arrested for a new indictable offense is 16 percent—compared to a 54 percent recidivism rate among offenders released from prison.

Looking at Corrections in Colorado

For a variety of reasons, corrections and criminal justice issues in Colorado have earned increased attention from the legislature.

Legislators looking for cost savings in the state budget are wondering why corrections spending is up almost 30 percent over eight years—even though the number of inmates is the same as it was in 2004. Colorado has apparently increased its per-inmate expenditures from $24,000 per year to $31,200 per year. Corrections officials point to increased costs for health care, utilities, and transportation, but legislators are determining whether cost-cutting measures might be possible, including prison closures, if there enough empty beds to warrant it.

One facility targeted for potential closure is so new that it won’t even be paid off until 2021. But shrinking offender populations and empty beds in other facilities suggest that simply closing the facility might actually make more sense. But Colorado’s legislators are first making sure that a possible prison closure is carried out with public safety implications in mind. For instance, legislators may seek to limit the number of prisoners who are directly released out of solitary confinement.

Furthermore, Colorado is considering proposals that would reduce the number of drug possession offenders entering the prison system. A bipartisan effort is underway to reclassify certain low-level drug possession charges from the lowest possible felony charge to the highest possible misdemeanor charge. These reforms would allow a portion of the savings to be reinvested into drug treatment programs.

New York Approves Close-to-Home Care for Juvenile Offenders

Late last night, the New York Senate, Assembly and Governor agreeed on the 2012-13 budget, which includes an innovative new juvenile justice program.

The “Close to Home” initiative, which would allow New York City to place low and mid-level juvenile delinquents in treatment programs in or near New York City, rather than in facilities hundreds of miles away in upstate New York, was included in Governor Andrew Cuomo’s original budget proposal. The Senate and Assembly, however, first had to approve the measure and pass budgets that included it.

Beginning in September of 2012, youth otherwise placed in non-secure facilities will now be placed in New York City-administered programs and facilities. Youth from limited-secure facilities will be placed in City programs beginning in April of 2013.

These categories of youth in New York are usually tried for misdemeanors or non-violent felonies. When they are sent to facilities far upstate, they are often placed a great distance from their families and communities. This distance from support networks correlates with dismal outcomes—youth recidivism among offenders released from state facilities is over 80 percent after three years. Furthermore, the cost exceeds $250,000 per year, giving taxpayers little return on a high investment.

By contrast, City-administered facilities under this initiative will be geographically closer to a youth’s family, and treatment options will be tailored to a youth’s individual risks and needs. Community-based programming has been proven more effective than traditional state-training schools for low and mid-level juveniles, all at a much lower cost, thereby giving New York City juveniles better outcomes and reducing the burden on taxpayers. (In fact, the cost savings is estimated over $30 million over the next four years). Furthermore, because high-risk juveniles convicted of serious offenses will still be placed in secure facilities, public safety remains the highest priority.

Colorado Imports Intensive Reentry from Canada

In Colorado, as in Texas state jails, many inmates are simply released after serving their terms without any supervision, tracking, or reentry guidance to obtain a job, housing, or solid plan for beginning a free life.

But one program in Colorado aims to change this approach—after seeing its success in Canada. The “Long-Term Offender Program” only is open to certain inmates in Colorado—those 45 and older, with a prison term of at least 15 years, and excluding sex offenders and arsonist. Inmates must have behaved well while in prison, acknowledged their crimes, and expressed remorse.

If accepted, inmates are first paired with a mentor—another former inmate who has already gone through the reentry experience and can provide first-hand guidance. The inmate then attends pre-release programming while in prison, which provides job training, develops technology skills, counseling, and seminars on families and victims. The program requires inmates to develop a “transition plan,” which specifically outlines their plans to get a job, housing, and financial issues.

At that point, a selection committee determines whether to approve the inmate to participate in a work release program, where the inmate works during the day and reports to a county jail in the evenings to sleep. If the inmate successfully completes the work release requirements, he can then transfer to a halfway house for a very small portion of the end of his or her term, a cheaper alternative to prison beds that still provide supervision. If that term is successful, the inmate can step down to an ankle monitoring system for one year, with additional parole supervision for five more years after that.

Such a gradual step-down provides intense supervision until corrections officials can have more assurance that ex-offenders are ready for a life beyond bars. In addition, the focus on gainful employment and steady housing can prevent two of the biggest predictors of recidivism (joblessness and homelessness) from affecting this class of offenders.

This program emerges as other states, and even the federal government, consider more intensive reentry programming as a way to reduce recidivism and put ex-offenders on the right track.

Civil Citations in Florida Contributing to Fewer Juvenile Arrests

Crime is down across the nation, and juvenile arrests fell 50 percent between 1994 and 2009. But two Florida counties are seeing almost double the average decrease due to a new civil citation program for first-time offenders.

Arrests on school grounds decreased by 16 percent across Florida, but Volusia and Flager counties, which have implemented a civil citation program for first-time misdemeanants, saw decreases of 23 and 29 percent.

Under the program, if a youth admits his or her guilt, performs community service, and participates in any required intervention services, the criminal charges are dropped in lieu of a civil citation.

Diverting low-level first-time offenders from the juvenile justice system not only decreases the costs involved with formal adjudication, but also prevents the collateral consequences from justice system involvement for juveniles, and can prevent the cycle of criminality that often begins with a juvenile’s first justice system contact.

Houston’s Success in Crime-Fighting and Cost-Cutting

My hometown of Houston, Texas has had a some exceptional successes in crime-fighting and cost-cutting over the last few years. These successes can be attributed in part to policy innovations from Pat Lykos, the district attorney. Moreover, exciting new initiatives that are based on solid research such as Judge Jan Krocker’s mental health court and a sobering center are just now getting underway. I wrote about several of these innovations — and the unfinished work that Houston still has left to do — in a piece for the Houston Chronicle this weekend. You can read it by clicking here.

Maryland May Follow Texas’ Lead

Maryland lawmakers are considering legislation that would permit police officers to issue citations to offenders accused of low-level citations—such as shoplifting—rather than arresting the offender. Legislators cited the more than 170,000 arrestees in Maryland each year, considering whether all of them pose such a significant risk to public safety that detention is necessary.

While the debate continues over which offenses would be citable, giving police officers discretion to cite rather than arrest permits a more efficient justice system. Police officers would not be tied up with transporting offenders to jails, and filling out the paperwork attendant to arrest and detention, returning to patrol beats more quickly. Costs of arrests and detention could decrease, with little, if any, increased risk to the public safety.

Texas implemented such a law in 2007, giving police officers permission to issue citations rather than arrest those accused of non-violent class A and B misdemeanors. While it is not yet widely used, providing such discretion could provide immense cost-savings and efficiencies to the criminal justice system.

Additional Alternative Courts Serve Defendants on Opposite Coasts

Criminal justice never has worked efficiently as a one-size-fits-all model, and greater numbers of states are realizing that tailored approaches to crime and public safety are more effective and better uses of taxpayer dollars.

In Seattle, youths will oversee trials for traffic charges levied against their peers—other minors, and apply restorative justice sanctions to the cases, usually involving efforts by the defendants to recompense society and the victim for their vehicular misdeeds.

With successful completion, these youth can get the citations dismissed, keeping their records clean, as well as obtain and more hands-on understanding of how their actions affected others. The court will not deal with any sort of serious traffic incident, nor will it accept youths who do not admit their guilt.

Meanwhile, on the other coast, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution spent five days profiling drug courts in Georgia. In this section of the series, the paper described the dramatic difference between recidivism rates: state prison inmates reoffend at a rate of about 29 percent, while those graduating from a drug court only reoffended at a rate of about 7 percent. This section profiled a lifelong addict who turned it all around with a drug court program.

Customized criminal justice systems can ensure programming tailored to the defendant to truly reverse cycles of criminality, saving millions in a state’s budget and unknown quantities in the peace of mind found in safer communities.

Suspensions, Expulsions Mask the True Issue

Recently, the U.S. Department of Education released a study documenting disproportionality in rates of suspensions and expulsions in public schools across the United States.

The report, which covered 72,000 schools across the United States, states that African-Americans only make up 18 percent of youth at the studied schools, but 35 percent of students suspended once and 39 percent of those expelled.

These findings mirror one aspect of a Texas study released last year, which found that African-American students in Texas were 31 percent more likely to be disciplined in school, at least once, than otherwise identical Caucasian or Hispanic students.

Jason Riley of the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board looked at these findings and deduced that this highlights the need for increased school choice. Just as importantly, it highlights another education reform priority – the overcriminalization of students of all races.

As zero tolerance policies have increased in both scope and consequences (now covering fish oil dietary supplements, asthma inhalers, oregano, and butter knives), more and more minor misbehavior spurs referrals to the justice system or triggers suspensions, when it previously would have been handled through parental involvement or traditional disciplinary methods, such as a visit to the principal’s office, after-school detention,  or requiring the student to perform school or community service.

However, too often schools simply kick students to the curb. For example, there were 22,080 in-school suspensions (ISS) and 22,530 out-of-school suspensions (OSS) in the Houston Independent School District in the 2009-2010 school year, while the Dallas Independent School District issued 11,485 ISS and 22,770 OSS in one year.

One must ask whether the 200,000 students in HISD and the 150,000 students in DISD committed behavior objectively deemed egregious enough to warrant suspension out of the classroom over 20,000 times in one year.

The issue is not who is being pushed out of school, but what they’re being pushed out of school for—and whether there is a better way to keep public schools safe while reducing unnecessary reliance on the justice system for discipline.

Schools and legislatures—such as in Maryland and Florida—are beginning to rethink discipline policies that have overcriminalized students and overburdened the justice system, and initial results are positive. In Clayton County, Georgia, for example, a tiered discipline system has replaced zero tolerance policies, and the result is an 87 percent decrease in reported fighting, a 64 percent decrease in disruptive behaviors, and 20 percent more students graduating from high school.

Moreover, the highly effective private and charter schools that Riley references rarely kick students out, and instead rely on innovative methods such as student behavior contracts and accounts, which involve a trivial amount of money added or deducted based on a student’s behavior which can then be redeemed for trinkets.

Concern over disproportionality in school discipline is an important issue, but it is separate from the truly compelling problem of ineffective discipline policies that are holding all students back.

This post can also be read at the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Speaking Freely blog.

There Ought Not Be a Law

One of Right on Crime and the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s new projects is a series highlighting some of the most unusual examples of overcriminalization across the country. (You’ll see more on this project soon.)

Our research on overcriminalization has long focused on the ever-increasing size and scope of criminal law, which sweeps into criminal courtrooms several behaviors which pose no public safety risk and are not traditionally considered criminal acts. Equally problematic is the frequent failure of states to purge or modify old laws that fail to keep pace with changing times.

Maryland, for example, makes it a misdemeanor to leave a car “unattended until the engine is stopped, the ignition locked, the key removed, and the brake effectively set.” This effectively outlaws the use of a remote car starter. As the Washington Post notes, these devices are increasingly common, especially in cold weather states where drivers want to warm a car up to protect its transmission before getting inside. (This is a normal in Maryland where January temperatures average in the low 20s, and where the lowest temperature in 2011 was eight degrees.) Offenders risk a fine of up to $500.

A bill has been introduced to exempt the use of a “remote keyless ignition system” from the statute, but until it is signed into law (there are concerns that environmental groups may oppose the bill), then starting a car in Maryland without actually sitting inside it remains illegal.