As expected, Senator James Webb (D-Va), reintroduced his bill on criminal justice reform on Tuesday. The National Criminal Justice Commission Act, first drafted two years ago, would set up a bipartisan group to conduct an 18-month review of the U.S. criminal justice system and offer concrete recommendations on what needs to be done to fix it.
The bill was passed by the House last year, but held up in the Senate over concerns about how it would be financed. In an interview last week, Webb’s spokesman Will Jenkins said the Senator ” never wavered in his commitment to reform and was determined to press on this year.” The fact that Webb has several Republican co-sponsors, Jenkins added, “has opened the door for compromise.”
Will he get it? Conservatives have recently embraced justice reform, most notably through Right on Crime, an organization pushing for fiscally responsible change at the local and state levels. Their goal is to recalibrate an incarceration-heavy system that has led to diminishing returns in terms of safety and effectiveness. Mark Levin of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a signatory for Right on Crime, said there are good things about Webb’s bill and that he believes the commission could be financed using current corrections funding. “ I’d hate to see the proposal held up over costs,” he added.
Beware, the pressure for quick fixes
Still, its passage will likely come down to whether legislators have the patience for a detailed review or feel the need to press for more immediate reforms. To that end, a newly released report from the Council of State Governments Justice Center, provides a preview of where they might start. The report, which grew out of a 2009 request by Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va) to hold a summit on proven ways to both serve justice and reduce crime and recidivism, offers a useful summary of what works and what doesn’t.
The report takes on a state system that costs more than $50 billion annually. Apparently, only Medicaid increased faster as a proportion of total state budgets. Meanwhile correction spending grew at nearly three times the rate of spending on higher education. At the same time, the authors caution that pushing fiscal auterity alone will lead to ill-advised policy decisions. Already they note:
Although many states and localities have made successful strides in prisoner reentry, elected officials in a growing number of jurisdictions are finding budget pressures and other conditions make it practically impossible to finance, on a large scale, strategies necessary to make someone’s transition from prison to the community safe and successful.
Scary. Especially considering how cursory so many reentry efforts are right now.
Where should the funding go?
So how to make avoid making ill-advised funding decisions while paring costs? The report suggests four areas where funds and energies should be targeted (read “justice reinvestment”) to get the most bang for the buck.
- Focus should be on people most likely to reoffend.
- Programs should be based on scientific evidence and have measurable outcomes.
- Efforts should be made to improve community supervision.
- Place-based strategies should be emphasized.
Yes, such a reallocation of resources will result in some people falling through the cracks. Ex-offenders with lesser crimes, for example, may lose out on some access to programs and services to aid in their reentry. But the authors also provides evidence that directing efforts to those individuals most likely to commit a new crime will be more beneficial in terms of reducing the crime rate and improving public safety.
At any rate, the report provides a useful summary of current thinking and programs, so it’s well worth checking out if you haven’t already.
Some other highlights:
- Drug treatment in the community is more effective than while in prison.
- Prison education programs work, (yeah!), but community based programs have more an impact on recidivism rates than those based in prison.
- Cognitive behavior therapy that is action-oriented is the more successful in changing behavior and reducing recidivism than fear tactics and emotional appeals, talk therapy or other client-centered approaches.
- Focusing services, resources and attention to certain high crime areas will have a bigger payoff in terms of reducing crime and recidivism. Probation and other reentry service offices located in where the individuals live have been found to be more effective.
Readers, what are your feelings on reform? What do you expect to happen?