- - Sunday, January 15, 2017

While the nation is still waiting to see if Congress will take up criminal justice reform, states have been quietly getting the job done. A new Urban Institute report shows that states participating in the Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI) have saved over a billion dollars thus far through smart reforms to sentencing laws, pretrial practices, and prison release policies. Moreover, this has enhanced public safety.

It’s a direction deserving of praise on both sides of the aisle. Reforms curb prison growth and relieve unsustainable costs for the states, while giving states the opportunity to reinvest funds into programs that will reduce crime and reoffending, such as community behavioral health treatment, and services for victims. And they have reinvested, at least $450 million so far.

Guided by the U.S. Department of Justice and the Pew Charitable Trusts, JRI catalyzes change in both process and policy through intensive technical support to bipartisan groups of key criminal justice players. Where states typically address criminal penalties on ad hoc basis, JRI brings together a task force of judges, prosecutors, victims’ advocates, and other stakeholders to analyze data about the state’s prison population and use it as the basis to collaboratively develop a comprehensive plan that will cut growth and reduce reoffending. The policy reforms embrace accountability for both offenders and the justice system, better distinguishing between those who must be incarcerated due to the danger they pose to society and those who can be rehabilitated in the community.

Here in Texas, success with this type of criminal justice reform was part of what prompted broad investment in JRI. Texas reforms have yielded an incredible $3 billion in savings and averted costs over almost 10 years, providing opportunities to reinvest hundreds of millions of dollars into treatment and diversion programs. Among the most successful interventions that Texas expanded in its 2007 justice reinvestment plan were drug courts, which led to lower re-arrest rates and reincarceration rates while costing the state a fraction of the amount Texas spends on incarceration.

Alongside declines in imprisonment we see a decline in crime rate. From 2010 to 2015 in the 10 states with the largest imprisonment declines, the crime rate fell an average of 14.4 percent, compared with 8.1 percent in the 10 states with the biggest growth in imprisonment. For example, the FBI index crime rate in South Carolina is now 15.7 percent lower than when the state’s justice reinvestment plan was adopted in 2010. Similarly, Texas’ crime rate has fallen 30 percent since its 2007 justice reinvestment plan.

Early success stories like the ones from Texas have inspired states to take on reforms of their own, and states continue to look to one another to see what’s working and provide framework for their reforms. With an incoming administration and Congress calling for greater respect for federalism, JRI is an ideal example of states functioning as laboratories of innovation while tailoring policies to suit their own unique challenges and opportunities.

Even better is when states create those unique policies then seek to iterate, creating better and in many cases more aggressive reforms to build on prior successes. Earlier this year, Georgia returned for a second JRI engagement, and plans to pass additional reforms in 2017.

The Justice Reinvestment Initiative is among the strongest case studies for reform at the state level. States are systematically and methodically redesigning their criminal justice systems to save money, fund the most effective programs, and truly enhance public safety. Other policy areas could learn from this example.

Marc A. Levin, a lawyer, is policy director of Right on Crime and the director of the Center for Effective Justice, Texas Public Policy Foundation.

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