States Save Taxpayer Dollars on Criminal Justice

The Bureau of Justice Statistics recently released data which reveals that, between 2009 and 2010, state expenditures on corrections declined 5.6 percent. Not only are taxpayers breathing a bit easier, but in that same time frame, violent crime went down 6.0 percent, while property crime was reduced 2.7 percent.

Public safety is a core function of state government. We expect state officials to use our tax dollars to help keep our streets safe. But this data suggests that the most important metric in criminal justice spending is not how much states spend, but how they spend those tax dollars. Smart justice policies can save money while continually increasing public safety.

Pennsylvania Cuts Prison Population Growth

For the first time in the last ten years, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections did not need to ask the Pennsylvania Legislature for more money.

That’s because the prison population growth has leveled off after 30 years of fairly consistent increases. The November month-end population in Pennsylvania prisons was 51,260. That’s compared to 51,467 a year ago. Stemming the tide of the prison population growth is an important step in the process of right-sizing the Pennsylvania criminal justice that gained steam in October with the passage of a justice reinvestment package in that state.

Pennsylvania has also been able to end the expensive practice of contracting for prison beds in other states to handle the overflow of prisoners. The state is now well-poised to implement the same types of reforms that Ohio, Texas, Georgia, and other states have used to cut prison costs and better protect public safety.

Criminal Justice Reform Report Released in Georgia

Earlier this year, Georgia passed one of nation’s most sweeping pieces of criminal justice reform legislation. The legislation, however, was focused on the state’s adult corrections system. Georgia is now turning it’s attention to the juvenile justice system, and the first step is this report, which was issued yesterday by the state’s Criminal Justice Reform Council.

Discussing Juvenile Justice with “Pure Politics” in Kentucky

Last month, Right On Crime’s Jeanette Moll traveled to Kentucky to present research on juvenile justice to stakeholders involved in reforming several aspects of the state juvenile system — including how it handles status offenders. A task force in Kentucky is studying the issue, and it is looking for lessons from Texas’s experience. While in Louisville, Moll sat down with Ryan Alessi of Pure Politics to discuss cost-effective juvenile justice:

U.S. Senate Hearing on the School-to-Prison Pipeline

Earlier this week, the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights held a hearing on “Ending the School to Prison Pipeline.” The Washington Post covered the hearing here. Click here to watch the hearing in full.

Continued Success at the State Level

Last month, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that the total population of incarcerated persons in the United States had decreased for the fourth consecutive year. The decline, however, came entirely at the state level. The federal system continued to gain prisoners, and in fact, from 2010 to 2011, the number of prisoners increased by about 7,800. The Federal Bureau of Prisons would be wise to take a look at the amazing success of the states — and to emulate the strategies that reduce incarceration while still protecting public safety.

Total U.S. Correctional Population Declines for the Third Straight Year

U.S. Adults Supervised by Adult Correctional Systems

U.S. Adults Held in Custody of Local Jails

U.S. Adults Held in Custody State Prisoners

U.S. Adults Held in Custody: Total Inmates Nationwide

Putting “Corrections” Back in State Jails

My Right On Crime colleague Jeanette Moll has been receiving considerable attention throughout Texas for her recent publication, Putting “Corrections” Back in State Jails. The state jails were first conceived as a place to treat low-level offenders that would be more effective—and less expensive—than prison. Moll argues, however, that the state jails have drifted away from their original mission and are now indistinguishable from prisons in many respects. In fact, in terms of recidivism, the state jails may actually be less effective than prisons. Criminal justice policy in Texas has been one of the nation’s great public policy success stories over the past decade, but there is more work to be done—and Texans may want to start by improving the state jails.

Moll’s paper, published by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, can be read by clicking on the link above. You can also listen to this podcast about the paper, or watch this television news feature from KEYE TV in Austin.

John Tierney’s Important New Series: Time and Punishment

This morning, Right On Crime was mentioned in a tragic New York Times story by John Tierney, titled “For Lesser Crimes, Rethinking Life Behind Bars.” Tierney’s article digs into the emerging social science consensus that America’s increase in incarceration over the last few decades helped to reduce crime up to a point but is now producing diminishing returns:

“James Q. Wilson, the conservative social scientist whose work in the 1970s helped inspire tougher policies on prison, several years ago recommended diverting more nonviolent drug offenders from prisons to treatment programs. Two of his collaborators, George L. Kelling of the Manhattan Institute and John J. DiIulio Jr. of the University of Pennsylvania, have joined with prominent scholars and politicians, including Jeb Bush and Newt Gingrich, in a group called Right on Crime. It advocates more selective incarceration and warns that current policies ‘have the unintended consequence of hardening nonviolent, low-risk offenders’ so that they become ‘a greater risk to the public than when they entered.’”

Tierney quotes the University of Chicago’s Steven D. Levitt (an economist who is famous as a co-author of the popular book, Freakonomics) as saying, “In the mid-1990s I concluded that the social benefits approximately equaled the costs of incarceration. Today, my guess is that the costs outweigh the benefits at the margins. I think we should be shrinking the prison population by at least one-third.”

Tierney’s coverage of the social science research is excellent, but he also illustrates his points with a devastating anecdote about Stephanie George, a prison inmate in Florida whose boyfriend hid a lockbox cocaine in her apartment. Due to a mandatory sentence, she is serving life in prison without parole. The sentencing judge was Robert Vinson, a staunchly conservative Reagan appointee who, Tierney reminds us, was the first federal judge to rule “Obamacare” unconstitutional. Judge Vinson’s reflections on the case are interesting:

“The judge…says he still regrets the sentence he had to impose on Ms. George because of a formula dictated by the amount of cocaine in the lockbox and her previous criminal record. ‘She was not a major participant by any means, but the problem in these cases is that the people who can offer the most help to the government are the most culpable,’ Judge Vinson said recently. ‘So they get reduced sentences while the small fry, the little workers who don’t have that information, get the mandatory sentences….The punishment is supposed to fit the crime, but when a legislative body says this is going to be the sentence no matter what other factors there are, that’s draconian in every sense of the word. Mandatory sentences breed injustice.’”

The Times published an accompanying article titled “Life Without Parole: Four Inmates Stories” that discusses four cases similar to Stephanie George’s. In all five cases, the offenders are out of options other than a presidential pardon or commutation. (Of course, as Paul Rosenzweig of the Heritage Foundation pointed out in an important memorandum this month, pardons are increasingly rare: “President Obama’s 22 pardons are but a miniscule fraction of the 200,000 federal prisoners today: Indeed, strictly speaking, since all of President Obama’s pardons have been granted to those who had already served their term of imprisonment, not a single individual has been released from prison by virtue of a presidential pardon in the Obama Administration. By contrast, in the early 1900s, when fewer than 10,000 federal prisoners were incarcerated nationwide pardons averaged roughly 300 each year.”)

Tierney’s two articles are the first in a series on incarceration that he is writing for the The New York Times. Notably, Tierney identifies as a libertarian and is one of the rare voices at the newspaper whose reporting regularly receives plaudits from conservatives. For those who are interested in reapplying conservative first principles in criminal justice policy, his series should be well-worth following.

Georgia Panel Will Propose Two Felony Crime Tiers for Juveniles

Georgia would establish a two-tiered system for felonies committed by juveniles younger than 18 years old if legislators adopt recommendations contained in a draft report.  The Georgia Public Policy Foundation reviewed a partial draft that the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform is expected to vote on this week.  Importantly, the draft could be revised before Thursday’s meeting.  As currently written, it builds on principles similar to adult criminal justice system reforms enacted this year.

The draft contains a small number of adult system proposals.  Notably, the Council is expected to repeat its 2011 recommendation that judges be allowed to depart from mandatory sentence minimums in some drug trafficking cases and under specific circumstances.  Drug convictions are largely responsible for the explosive growth in state prison populations not just in Georgia but across the country.  The state Legislature did not adopt this recommendation last spring.

When it votes Thursday the 21-member Special Council is expected to recommend that felonies committed by juveniles not be treated equally. The draft said current state law “contains a single dispositional structure for nearly 30 offenses ranging from murder to smash-and-grab burglary.”  Having more than one category would ensure incarceration for convicted serious offenders and it would provide flexibility to address non-violent and low-risk offenders.

This is similar to the 2012 adult corrections system reforms that created more than one tier for crimes such as burglary.  For instance the recommendation that became state law July 1 now differentiates between the burglary of an occupied residence and the burglary of a shed or any unoccupied structure.  The adult code includes similar distinctions for other kinds of crimes.

The newly enacted adult code and the anticipated juvenile code rewrite share several common goals: Foremost, ensure public safety; second, incarcerate serious offenders as required; third, provide treatment and counseling in appropriate settings to non-violent offenders who are considered low-risk to offend; and, fourth, reduce and control unnecessary system expense.

Reducing recidivism has been and continues to be a central focus in these discussions. The Council has reviewed data that shows 65 percent of juveniles released from state confinement return to the juvenile system or enter the adult corrections system within three years of their initial release.  How to vastly reduce that recidivism percentage rate remains a high priority.

The Council is expected to recommend that eight crimes committed by juveniles would become Class “A” felonies subject to the highest levels of prosecution and penalties upon conviction.  Those eight include murder, attempted murder, voluntary manslaughter, rape, sodomy, sexual battery, child molestation and aggravated battery.  There would be no Class “B” lesser option.

Aggravated assault is one example in which the Special Council might recommend that the state adopt two tiers of prosecution.  For example, assault with a firearm against any student, teacher or other school system employee would become a Class “A” felony.  Assault on school grounds that did not include use of a firearm would become a lesser Class “B” felony.

Similarly there would be a sharper distinction between the more serious Class “A” hijacking of an occupied vehicle and the less serious Class “B” theft of an unoccupied vehicle.  Drug offenses committed by juveniles would draw a distinction between the most serious charges — sale, manufacturing or delivering drugs – and less serious personal possession charges.  Street gang activity could become either Class “A” or “B” based on contributing circumstances.

The Council is expected to propose that conviction on a Class “A” felony would trigger up to five years of state confinement followed by one year of intense supervision.  Class “B” convictions would trigger 18 months maximum confinement, up to 18 additional months in a Department of Juvenile Justice program, and then six months of mandatory supervision.

About one dozen recommendations would affect how prosecutors, judges, treatment providers and others do their work with an emphasis on improved models to evaluate juveniles, manage their cases, make certain courts have all relevant information and help offenders return to the community upon release.  Similar to this year’s adult reforms there is language about reinvesting cost-based savings back into local community programs.

The council did not address juvenile code laws that are considered outdated including adoption, guardianship, terminating parental rights and children in need of services.  All 246 pages of House Bill 641 – a juvenile code rewrite — passed unanimously last spring but the Senate did not vote amid questions about cost.  This might resurface in 2013 session legislation.

Special Council recommendations are due to Governor Nathan Deal and the General Assembly leadership before year-end.  The Legislature is not bound by law to accept any idea and it can create a bill that goes beyond the ideas that originate with the Special Council.

Note: This item has also been posted on the Georgia Public Policy Foundation’s website here.

Arizona Experiments with Swift and Sure Sanctions

In the same vein as Hawaii, Michigan, Texas, New Jersey, and other jurisdictions across the United States, Arizona has decided to use swift and sure sanctions, otherwise known as graduated sanctions, in order to reduce technical revocations.

Technical revocations occur when probated or paroled offenders violate a term of their supervision—such as missing a meeting or failing to pay a fine—rather than a new crime. These technical violations can sometimes pile up and result in revocation and an additional stint in a prison cell.

Arizona has realized, as so many other jurisdictions have, that avoiding technical revocations not only saves taxpayers the bill for additional months or years spent in prison, but also frees up prison beds for dangerous and violent offenders.

To that end, Arizona’s Department of Corrections created a halfway house for parolees who violate a technical provision of their release. This halfway house will include drug treatment, day reporting for employed parolees, and life skills classes. But most importantly, the halfway house will use immediate penalties and sanctions for technical violations, which will aid in reducing revocations to prison.

The cost savings to Arizona taxpayers encompasses both the cheaper per diem for community corrections, but also long term savings that result from more ex-offenders desisting from crime.