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Success of Justice Reinvestment Becoming Indisputable

| January 27, 2014

A new report released today by the Urban Institute highlights the efforts of states to reduce their prisoner count, crime rates, and impact on their budgets.  The Justice Reinvestment Initiative State Assessment Report analyzed 17 state-level reform efforts that have taken place over the last three years in states like Arkansas, Georgia, South Carolina, and West Virginia.

Justice reinvestment is a multi-branch approach to structural criminal justice reform.  By implementing evidence-based practices and advancing supportive policy, participating states have been able to rely less upon costly incarceration and more on alternatives such as diversions, drug courts, and community corrections.  It is estimated that states participating in the formal process have collectively experienced over $17 million in direct savings.  Together, the 17 states have reallocated over $168 million from prison construction costs and operational overhead towards more cost-efficient methods of punishing offenders.

However, while this report does illustrate the financial benefits of justice reinvestment (savings that are sure to compound over time), it does not discuss the effect these policies have had on the crime rate.  Subsequent analyses on the issue are likely to be promising if these states share in the experience that early adopters of the strategy have enjoyed.

Texas, for example, implemented a broad reform package during the 2007 legislative session.  Left unchecked, it was estimated that sentencing practices at the time would necessitate an additional $2.1 billion dollars to increase capacity and security.  Lawmakers were hesitant to tack such a large expenditure on to the state budget, opting instead to increase the use of various community corrections programs.  Today, the crime rate is the lowest it’s been since 1968.

This report contributes to the growing consensus that states can be smart in criminal justice policy matters and enjoy appreciable cost-savings doing so.

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DEREK M. COHEN is Deputy Director of the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation and the Right on Crime campaign. Cohen graduated with a B.S. in Criminal Justice from Bowling Green State University and an M.S. in Criminal Justice from the University of Cincinnati, where he is currently completing his Ph.D. dissertation on the long-term costs and outcomes associated with correctional programming.  His academic work can be found in Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies & Management and the forthcoming Encyclopedia of Theoretical Criminology and The Oxford Handbook on Police and Policing, and has scholarly articles currently under review.  He has presented several papers to the American Society of Criminology, the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences, and the American Evaluation Association on the implementation and outcomes of various criminal justice policy issues. Prior to joining the Foundation, Cohen was a research associate with University of Cincinnati’s Institute of Crime Science.  He also taught classes in statistics, research methods, criminal procedure, and corrections.

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