A New Re-entry Program for Florida?

In a bill recently passed by both chambers of the state legislature, Florida may have hit upon an effective way to combat high recidivism rates. The bill, now awaiting the governor’s signature, creates a new system of re-entry which will divert non-violent drug offenders who have served at least half of their sentence into community-based substance abuse treatment and education programs.

The bill would make 337 inmates eligible this year alone and at a cost of $19,469 per prisoner per year in Florida, it could lead the state to save up to $6,561,053. These savings could be just the beginning, however, because properly-structured treatment programs have proved to reduce recidivism rates dramatically. A Maryland study, for example, found that low-risk substance abuse offenders that were directed into an evidence-based probation and treatment program were 22 percent less likely to re-offend than comparable offenders who were sent to prison.

Florida taxpayers should be delighted to see that their legislators and governor are looking so carefully at the state’s recidivism problem.

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.

The Commonwealth Foundation’s Plan to Improve Corrections in Pennsylvania

Since 1980, the incarceration rate in Pennsylvania has increased by 500%, and the budget for the state’s Department of Corrections has increased by 1,700%. Even after all of this spending on corrections (which includes costs for the construction of eighteen new prisons), Pennsylvania’s facilities remain 13% over capacity. Three new prisons are now scheduled for construction at a cost of over $695 million. The Commonwealth Foundation has put together a three-point plan to combat this growth: keep low-risk cases out of prison, reduce recidivism, and fund results rather than just punishment. Commonwealth’s plan can be read in full here.

Doggy Justice or Nanny State?

The Wall Street Journal is reporting on a new court in San Antonio, TX that has been established to deal with domestic animal problems. The court meets every week to deal exclusively with the revamped chapter five of the city’s Code of Ordinances, which addresses dog bites, stray pets, failure to register and vaccinate animals, and the specific weight, length, and material of leashes and collars. Code violations can lead to fines of up to $2,000 per day.

Some citizens argue that the city is frequently “prosecuting picayune offenses.” Ramal Shaw, for example, is a resident of San Antonio who faces charges that his Chihuahua bit his 6-year-old son. Shaw claims that the bite was actually a scratch, and his son complained about it to a school nurse in an attempt to “play hooky” from school. Shaw now faces a $269 fine and must appear in the new court to face a prosecutor. If Shaw does not pay the fine, the court has the power to seize the dog. For some individuals, this is the equivalent of losing a family member because of an inability to pay a fine.

Lisa Wayne, the president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, argues in the article that “[w]e have moved towards an over-criminalization model, where everything is punishable by jails or fines.” In her view, the city should focus on “educating people about their animals rather than punishing them.”

San Antonio’s new system has thus far accumulated a total of $250,000 in fines from the prosecution of similar cases.

GPPF Releases New Paper by Right on Crime Senior Advisers

Today, the Georgia Public Policy Foundation released a new report, “Peach State Criminal Justice: Controlling Costs, Protecting the Public,” by Right on Crime Senior Advisers, Marc Levin and Vikrant P. Reddy. The issue analysis reviews the recommendations made by the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform for Georgians and discusses how commonsense adjustments to the criminal justice system have assisted other states in ensuring public safety, holding offenders accountable and controlling corrections costs.

“In Georgia and across the nation, conservatives are uniting behind the idea that we can increase public safety and provide restitution for victims while reducing the burden on taxpayers,” said Kelly McCutchen, president and CEO of the Foundation and a Right on Crime signatory. “It’s time to hold the criminal justice system accountable and the recommendations discussed in this paper truly think outside the cell and provide an excellent step toward reform.”

McCutchen has signed Right on Crime’s Statement of Principles.  He joins national signatories including former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and Reagan Attorney General Ed Meese, as well as leaders in Georgia including the founder of the Faith and Freedom Coalition Ralph Reed, former U.S. Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson, former Acting U.S. Associate Attorney General Joe Whitley, and president of the Georgia Family Council Randy Hicks.

“Georgians simply can’t build their way out of the state’s prison problems,” said Senior Policy Adviser to Right on Crime and Director of the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation Marc Levin, the paper’s co-author.  ”Rather than asking taxpayers to construct another costly prison facility, policymakers should recognize that community corrections programs that are based on evidence, customized to the risk level of each offender, and subjected to rigorous performance measures offer a better option for holding nonviolent offenders accountable and turning them into productive taxpayers.”

To view the full report, click here.

Probation Downsizes Jail Populations Across Texas

Counties across Texas are beginning to take advantage of probation-type programs to ensure that limited county jail space is most effectively used. At the same time, the counties can look forward to millions in savings.

In Angelina County, judges are placing would-be jail detainees on a “rocket docket,” which ensures a speedy assessment of each defendant’s risk factors. The risk analysis is then used to determine whether pre-trial probation is sufficient, or if detention is necessary to protect public safety. As a result, county jail populations are down by an average of 50 detainees each month. Because such detention costs $45 per day, the county could realize savings of over $900,000 per year.

Similarly, Coryell County is increasing the number of low-level defendants who are released on a personal recognizance bond with probation-style supervision prior to their trial, rather than allowing low-risk defendants who cannot afford to pay a bond to languish in jail—on the taxpayers’ dime. By limiting such releases to low-level offenders, Coryell County’s tactic preserves public safety, while still preventing jail overcrowding and saving $51 per inmate per day.

The use of such probation-style pre-trial supervision ensures that county jail space—which is both expensive and limited—is available for those defendants who do pose a risk to public safety and must be detained prior to their trials. Low-level defendants who pose no such risk can be safely released and save counties unnecessary detention expenditures.

States Are Rethinking Mandatory Minimums

Budget deficits are causing some states to reevaluate mandatory minimum sentencing policies. Over the past few decades, mandatory minimums were enacted in part for deterrence, but they have not necessarily deterred criminal behavior. Instead the policies appear to have produced many unintended consequences, one of which is a dramatic and unsustainable increase in criminal justice spending. At the federal level, partly due to mandatory minimums, the prison population has grown from 24,000 in 1980 to 209,000 today.

Community supervision alternatives to incarceration are often more effective and substantially cheaper than mandatory incarceration, and states that have eschewed mandatory minimum sentencing have seen some success in limiting costs. Texas is a good example. In Texas, the price of parole is $3 a day per offender, while the price of incarceration $79 per day per offender. Texas has focused its limited resources on diverting nonviolent offenders from incarceration. The state’s crime rate is now the lowest it has been since 1973, and the prison population has declined to the point that Texas was able to shut down a prison outside of Houston in 2011. These savings would have been impossible if mandatory sentences had forced Texas judges to incarcerate offenders who clearly benefited more from other – cheaper — alternatives to prison. Mandatory minimums, had they been used more extensively in Texas, likely would have yielded negative results for public safety, for offenders, and for taxpayers.

The Hidden Costs of Prison

In a new report, the Vera Institute suggests that the actual cost of prisons is, on average, fourteen percent higher than a typical state budget reveals. Vera surveyed 40 states during the 2010 fiscal year, and determined that in six states, including Texas, the actual cost of prisons is 20-34 percent higher than the state’s budget identifies. To reach this conclusion, Vera factored in several costs that aren’t often put into the corrections budget: state contributions to healthcare and pensions of employees who work within the prison system, capital costs (to construct and renovate prisons), and hospital and other healthcare costs for prisoners. According to Vera, when these costs are included, the actual cost of corrections among the 40 states surveyed is $5.4 billion more than the $33.4 billion claimed in corrections budgets.

Harris County Keeping Prisoners In-House; Saving Millions

According to the Houston Chronicle, there has been a 31 percent decline in the Harris County jail population since 2008 that will allow for the County to house all of its own inmates in its own facilities for the first time in five years.

The sharp drop in the jail population is due, in large part, to Harris County’s efforts to stop jailing as many misdemeanants and offenders found with trace amounts of drugs. Harris County District Attorney Pat Lykos made the decision to stop handing down felony indictments to those caught with trace amounts of drugs or with paraphernalia. As a result, there has been a 56 percent decrease in case filings for drugs of less than one gram, or a decline of almost 5,000 cases.

Right-sizing jail populations in Harris County will save taxpayers millions. Over the last two years, the cost of sending prisoners to other states due to overpopulation in Harris County jails was $31 million dollars, but now the exportation of both prisoners and taxpayer dollars can be avoided.

The Texas Public Policy Foundation has shown that jail time for low-level drug possession offenders does not give taxpayers the best bang for their buck. The price of housing and feeding low-risk offenders is much more expensive than probation or rehabilitation programs, which have proved to be more effective than jail time in these cases. A sensible approach to law enforcement when dealing with low-level drug possession and other minor offenses can provide significant savings for taxpayers and result in a more effective criminal justice system.

Oklahoma Tackles Criminal Justice Reform

For seven months, experts in Oklahoma have studied, evaluated, debated and reimagined criminal justice in that state.

The result of their work is a report released this month that is aimed at reducing violent crime, providing better post-release supervision, and controlling expensive prison growth.

The experts came together under the Justice Reinvestment Working Group, a coalition of legislators (Republican House Speaker Kris Steele co-chaired the group) and private sector leaders, which was formed in partnership with the Council of State Governments’ Justice Center and the Pew Center on the States.

Proposals from the study include requiring post-release supervision for felony offenders, increased substance abuse treatment for drug offenders in lieu of long prison sentences, and earned-time credits for offenders.  The report noted the usefulness of risk assessments and the low rates at which those assessments are currently used in Oklahoma. On the front end, the group suggested hot-spot policing to better combat and respond to crime.

The projected result would be cost-savings for Oklahoma taxpayers and reduced growth in prison populations, stemming the need for expensive prison construction.

This undertaking was rooted in experience: the Justice Center and Pew led similar efforts in other states, including Texas (which led, in part, to a $2 billion savings for Texas taxpayers). In fact, Representative Steele said the success of the effort in Texas, in conjunction with Right on Crime, played a role in encouraging lawmakers to undertake reform in Oklahoma.

Going forward, the working group will ensure input from all stakeholders, including prosecutors, to ensure that the criminal justice reform effort is widely supported and comprehensive.