Leading Researchers and Advocates Call for an End to Mass Incarceration; Critique Limitations of Current Justice Reinvestment Initiative

April 17, 2013 8:40 am

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Today, a group of researchers, analysts, and advocates dedicated to ending mass incarceration in the United States issued a paper that traces the history and examines the impact of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI) as spearheaded by the Council of State Governments and its principal funders, Pew Charitable Trusts and the Bureau of Justice Assistance.

The primary conclusion is that while the JRI has played a significant role in softening the ground for criminal justice reform, it has not made significant reductions in the correctional populations or costs in most of the states in which it has worked. This contrasts with the original intent of Justice Reinvestment which was to reduce corrections populations and budgets, thereby generating savings for reinvestment in high incarceration communities to make them safer, stronger, and more equitable.

If the JRI continues on its current course, it runs the risk of institutionalizing mass incarceration at current high levels and missing current opportunities to reduce prison populations and spending. Instead, the authors concluded, the JRI could have a real impact if it were required to aim for meaningful reductions in correctional populations and investment in high-incarceration communities as concrete, necessary, and measurable goals.

The major reasons the authors cite that the current JRI approach will not achieve significant reductions in correctional populations and build stronger, safer communities are:

  1. JRI legislative efforts have not addressed the two principal drivers of prison populations: the number of people admitted to prison and their length of stay. When promising strategies for affecting these two prison population drivers have been proposed, they are often the first to be jettisoned as a part of legislative compromises.
  2. JRI activities are typically focused on state government policy makers and state-level reforms, eschewing and sometimes excluding other important state and local constituencies, including strategic advocates and locally-elected officials from high incarceration communities.
  3. The JRI focus on short-term analysis and technical assistance to state corrections officials does not build or leverage state and local capacity to move genuine justice reform forward over the long-term.
  4. JRI has abandoned a key premise of Justice Reinvestment as it was originally conceived: reinvestment in high incarceration neighborhoods to promote safe and vibrant communities. Absent demand-side advocacy from local stakeholders, resources become vulnerable to the claims of other criminal justice agencies, including from law enforcement, for budget increases.
  5. There has been insufficient attention to the problem of structural disincentives that discourage and inhibit officials at all levels of government from pursuing local, innovative, non-incarcerative public safety strategies. The state subsidy for imprisonment relieves local public officials of the financial consequences of sentencing decisions which greatly increase state prison populations.

To achieve the goals of reducing corrections populations and costs and investing in local communities, the authors recommend Justice Reinvestment approaches that would:

  1. Re-affirm and commit to achieving the two primary goals of JRI: 1) significant reductions in all forms of incarceration and correctional supervision (i.e. probation and parole), and 2) reinvestment in high incarceration communities
  2. Involve key stakeholders and non-governmental entities at the state and local levels throughout the planning, legislative, implementation and reinvestment process, and
  3. Create a multi-year plan for implementation and evaluation beyond short-term legislative or policy fixes

Ending Mass Incarceration: Charting a New Justice Reinvestment was co-authored by James Austin, JFA Institute; Eric Cadora, Justice Mapping Center; Todd R. Clear, Rutgers University; Kara Dansky, American Civil Liberties Union; Judith Greene, Justice Strategies; Vanita Gupta, American Civil Liberties Union; Marc Mauer, The Sentencing Project; Nicole Porter, The Sentencing Project; Susan Tucker, Former Director, The After Prison Initiative, Open Society Foundations; and Malcolm C. Young, Bluhm Legal Clinic, Northwestern University Law School.

Full copies of the report can be obtained on the ACLU’s website, Justice Strategies’ website, and the Sentencing Project’s website.

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