A more effective use of our resources will improve public safety and save money

Amidst the manifold conservative efforts nationally to reform criminal justice policy, a recurring phrase being used is “Justice Reinvestment.” This terminology may seem vague on the surface but the implications are concrete and critical to reforming the justice paradigm.

To free up funds, states pass measures that focus their prison beds on serious violent offenders, and reinvest a portion of the savings into evidence-backed prison alternatives. They pair data-driven statutory changes that affect who goes to prison and for how long, with budgetary decisions that shift funding from prison beds to community supervision, treatment services, and reentry supports. By doing this, they get a better public safety return on their taxpayer spending.

At their core, these approaches all emphasize data-driven, evidence-based innovations designed to reduce corrections spending while also reducing recidivism. Resultantly, a number of national and state task force initiatives for reforming the justice system are adorned with the “justice reinvestment” phraseology. A survey of these urgent efforts across the country is well worth a look as to how they are positively impacting the criminal justice and economic landscape. This issue has special relevance here in Louisiana, where there is hope that these efforts have begun to influence our political leadership.

While tougher sentencing laws played a role in addressing the rising crime rates in recent decades, it is clear that over-incarceration is a legitimate problem that lawmakers are beginning to address. Aside from obvious fiscal and social costs, locking up those who do not pose a legitimate threat is not an effective approach to deterring crime and may actually increase reoffending. America currently incarcerates more people than any other nation in the world – a humiliating distinction. Recognizing this challenge, justice reinvestment looks towards both cost-effective and evidence-based solutions.

A pillar of justice reinvestment is redirecting resources to strengthen probation and parole, rather than continue to expand incarceration. Probation and parole supervision in the community is a much more suitable avenue for dealing with many lower-level offenders. When probation and parole is working well, those on supervision have access to essential mental health and drug treatment services that drastically reduce their chances of reoffending, and their probation and parole officers incentivize compliance with treatment and supervision conditions. It is also significantly less costly than incarceration. Further, it provides an opportunity for people to remain in the workforce and become productive members of society. By strengthening probation and parole, states realize savings by reducing recidivism – the revolving door that drives our ignominious incarceration rates.

Another fundamental component of justice reinvestment is an increased emphasis on treatment as a preventative measure against recidivism. The state of Idaho, for instance, has recently overhauled therapy based treatment programs to benefit offenders and curb recidivism. This entails a variety of group therapy programs focusing on critical problem solving, reducing aggressive behavior, and behavioral interventions. These programs are available across the prison, parole, and probation spectrum. Although the program is expected to cost the state $24.2 million at the outset, it is expected to ultimately save Idaho between $134 and $157 million in spending between 2015 and 2019. Such innovative measures are essential for a state like Idaho, which had undergone a rapidly increasing prison population in recent years without seeing reductions in recidivism.

Of course, justice reinvestment does not suggest that prison is not appropriate for violent criminals. They do exist, and prisons are necessary to protect us from murderers, rapists and others who pose a threat to public safety. The problem that justice reinvestment seeks to address is a regime that requires incarceration for many non-violent and first time offenders and that holds people in prison well past the point when they pose an ongoing threat to the community.

Much of this swelling in the rates of incarceration came from short-sighted sentencing laws, such as mandatory minimum sentences for drug and property crimes, excessive penalty enhancements for those with prior offenses, and policies allowing revocations to prison for people who break the rules of their probation and parole supervision. More than half of the states in the country, including neighboring states like Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and Texas, have passed sentencing changes that have reduced their prison populations and also reduced crime.

Louisiana, as we all should know by now, has ‘earned’ the intolerable distinction of the most incarcerated state in the country and statistically the prison capital of the world. We spend $700 million annually on corrections at a time when we can hardly afford to fund higher education. This distinction has been accomplished through many of the myopic policies that are being corrected nationally.

Fortunately, Louisiana is in the nascent stages of Justice Reinvestment itself. The last few years have seen a number of legislative instruments passed that are designed to rectify certain minimum sentences, increase access to probation and parole, and notably to create a bipartisan Louisiana Justice Reinvestment Task force to study the myriad of factors driving our incarceration rate and to issue policy recommendations for the future.

The reality is that in many cases, much more sensible and pragmatic sentencing practices and prison alternatives exist, or could exist with a shift in our budgetary priorities. We need to stop wasting taxpayer dollars on incarceration for nonviolent low-level offenders and instead invest in treatment, reentry supports, victims’ services, and strengthening community supervision. The data-driven, empirical approach of Justice Reinvestment has helped us accrue evidence suggesting that the alternatives are prospering where incarceration has faltered. We can no longer abide by a system of rapidly diminishing returns. The fiscal – and human – costs are untenable.

Jamison Beuerman is an Adjunct Scholar at the Pelican Institute. He will graduate with a Master of Criminal Justice from Loyola University New Orleans in August, and has received a Juris Doctor from Louisiana State University School of Law and a Bachelor of Arts from Rhodes College.