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Critics Say Justice Reinvestment Sidesteps Minority Communities

April 17, 2013 09:59:53 am

By Ted Gest

A group of the nation's leading criminal justice advocates and researchers have charged that the much-lauded  "justice reinvestment" strategy has failed to divert meaningful funds to minority communities who have been the most deeply affected by high levels of incarceration. 

In a report issued today, the advocates are sharply critical of how the six-year-old strategy--warmly endorsed by the Department of Justice only last week---has evolved in many states.

While they note progress on many prison and sentencing reforms, the critics argue that the strategy has fallen short in efforts to reduce prison populations sharply, and to reinvest the money saved into heavily minority communities whose residents fill many prison cells--key pillars of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative. 

By making political compromises to enact reform legislation in states, the critics charge, the Initiative, "as it has come to operate, runs the danger of institutionalizing mass incarceration at current levels."

The group argued that by agreeing to  changes in state law that may reduce prison growth but not the actual number of inmates, high incarceration rates may persist "for many decades to come, largely ignoring its impact on communities of color in particular."

They added: "This is not the future we want."

The report's 10 signers are James Austin of the JFA Institute; Eric Cadora of the Justice Mapping Center; Todd R. Clear, dean of the Rutgers School of Criminal Justice; Kara Dansky and Vanita Gupta of the American Civil Liberties Union; Judith Greene of Justice Strategies, Marc Mauer and Nicole Porter of The Sentencing Project; Susan Tucker, former director of the Open Society Foundations' After Prison Initiative; and Malcolm C. Young of Northwestern University Law School, former director of The Sentencing Project.

The critics' paper comes at a critical time for justice reinvestment, which is run largely by the Council of State Governments Justice Center, and supported by the U.S. Justice Department and the Pew Public Safety Performance Project.

In general, justice reinvestment aims to trim prison populations and apply the savings to services that would help the communities that historically have produced the most inmates.

Last week, the advocates issued their own report on their project's successes, and President Barack Obama's proposed budget for the year starting October 1 asked Congress for a large increase in the federal contribution to it, from $6 million to $85 million annually.

Twenty-seven states have taken part in justice reinvestment in some way, and at least 17 of them have enacted legislation on the subject.

The overall growth in U.S. prison populations has stalled in recent years and may be declining slightly.

The critics say that justice reinvestment has not led the way in reducing "correctional populations and budgets below the historically high levels that persist today."

They list several examples of states often cited by justice reinvestment advocates, including Kansas, where the inmate population grew from 8,539 in 2008 to 9,327 in 2011; Arizona, where there were 39,589 inmates in 2008 and 40,020 in 2011; and Texas, which rose from 171,790 in 2007 to 172,224 in 2011.

Projected increase in inmate populations

The report asserts that prison populations are projected to increase slightly over the next four years in 14 of the 18 states that have passed justice reinvestment legislation.

Justice reinvestment advocates, the new paper argues, have not "steered reinvestment toward the communities most weakened by aggressive criminal justice policies."

Since "reinvestment" leaders have had to make compromises with state legislators on many key points, the new report maintains, "Justice Reinvestment risks becoming all things to all people."

"The lack of targeted reinvestment in high incarceration communities is probably the most glaring weakness" of justice reinvestment, the analysts go on to write.,

They cite Pennsylvania, where a reinvestment initiative last year "made no attempt to advance a goal of community reinvestment" and instead directed anticipated savings in a new sentencing law to law enforcement and other criminal-justice agencies.

The critics urge those running Justice Reinvestment programs to change their strategy, for example by working for the reduction of unnecessary arrests at the front end of the justice system, mainly for drug crimes; by emphasizing legislation that would reduce the average length of stay for convicts, and by expanding their reach beyond political and criminal justice leaders to include more grassroots organizers and better public-education campaigns. 

The new report says the current public dialogue on sentencing and prison issues "might be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make sure that people mired in the injustices of the U.S. punishment system are not left out, forced to the back of the line again, and told to wait until all the other big problems facing the world have been dealt with."

It concludes that justice reinvestment "needs a new orientation and a new future."

Adam Gelb, director of The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Public Safety Performance Project, said in response to the report, "In all of its work, Pew applies a rigorous, analytical approach to improve public policy. From the inception of the Public Safety Performance Project, the stated goals have been to protect public safety, hold offenders accountable, and control corrections costs. While we recognize others have different goals and approaches to reform, Pew’s focus on nonpartisan, fact-based policymaking has found strong resonance among decision makers once paralyzed by partisan public safety rhetoric.

"Our landmark research and work with more than a dozen states has helped reorient the policy debates to a more productive deliberation on how to deliver the best possible public-safety return on tax dollars. This, in turn, has helped states adopt comprehensive research-based sentencing and corrections policies and practices that slow the growth of prison costs while reducing recidivism and keeping communities safer."

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington DC bureau chief of The Crime Report. He welcomes comments from readers.

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