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Fund Schools Not Prisons
A protester holds a sign in Terry Shrunk Plaza during the ongoing protests against police brutality in Portland, Ore., on June 10, 2020. (Alex Milan Tracy/Sipa USA via AP Images)

Amid Calls to Defund’ Police, Experts Reconsider the Justice Reinvestment Model

The Justice Reinvestment Initiative has helped states to reduce prison populations and invest in community safety. Does it contain lessons for today’s advocates of defunding” police?

For Daryl Atkinson, attorney and Co-Director of the nonprofit Forward Justice, truly transforming the criminal justice system means reallocating state and local budgets to invest in the communities most harmed by incarceration. We need a radical redistribution of public investments in disadvantaged communities,” he says. 

Atkinson, who spent 40 months incarcerated for a first-time, nonviolent drug crime in the late 1990s, has since served as a fellow at the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) and an advocate for formerly incarcerated people in his hometown of Durham, North Carolina. At both the state and national level, he has engaged with a reform process known as justice reinvestment — which has recently resurfaced on the national radar, due in part to protestors’ calls to defund” the police in response to systemic racism.

Broadly speaking, the aim of justice reinvestment is to develop a set of policy and practice changes that make more efficient use of a state’s resources and improve public safety. 

In many states, justice reinvestment has served as a response to the prison boom of recent decades. Between 1972 and 2009, the United States witnessed a 700 percent growth in its prison population, along with a spike in correctional spending. 

Compelled by the sense that this level of incarceration and spending was both unsustainable and ineffective in advancing public safety, state officials and other stakeholders analyzed their criminal justice data and resources — and then, commonly, reduced their incarceration rates and reallocated funding away from correctional systems and into community services that promoted public safety. 

We’ve seen states not only make sustained reinvestments, but in some cases, expand community-based strategies over the years,” said Marshall Clement, Deputy Director of Policy and Strategic Planning at the Council of State Governments Justice Center, one of the nonprofit partners that administered the federally-supported Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI).

Since 2007, the JRI has helped 31 states to close 21 prisons and avert the growth of the prison population by more than 82,000, according to CSG, while investing in research-supported, community-based sanctions as crime and recidivism rates continue to decline. 

At a moment when protestors nationwide are demanding that public officials rethink how we approach public safety — forcing policymakers from New York to Minneapolis to Seattle to grapple in particular with the idea of diverting police budgets to community programs that better serve communities of color — the experience of justice reinvestment is worth revisiting. Its successes, its shortcomings, and new approaches that build on its ideas offer important lessons for those who wish to see criminal justice funding redirected toward community groups and hard-hit neighborhoods.

A Recent History

The idea of justice reinvestment has its roots in a 2003 paper by Susan Tucker and Eric Cadora, which observes that the U.S. then spent over $54 billion annually on a soaring prison population disproportionately composed of people of color. The authors argue that incarceration, far from producing security, sacrifices public safety goals that could be better served by funding areas like education, housing, health care, and jobs, all of which have a direct impact on crime rates.

Beginning in 2007, a public-private partnership between BJA and the Pew Charitable Trusts, along with other partners, began putting this idea into practice at the state level through the JRI. The timing was fortuitous; by 2008, American incarceration rates had reached their peak, and state budgets were hit hard by the Great Recession. This combination incentivized state lawmakers to identify smart and safe ways to reduce burgeoning state prison budgets. 

Clement and CSG worked with state officials, analyzing public data to determine the drivers of incarceration, which often included draconian sentencing policies, high rates of reoffending, and frequent revocations from probation or parole. 

State policymakers from both sides of the aisle, and everyone involved in the prison system, recognized that it’s too costly, and it’s not working effectively,” said Clement. Recidivism rates were extremely high, and costs were only rising from increased incarceration.”

Under the JRI, 35 states have reformed criminal justice policies while reducing spending on corrections and reinvesting in more effective public safety strategies. Examples of these policy changes include holding people convicted of property and drug offenses accountable with community treatment and supervision rather than prison, incentivizing participation ineffective programs, making new investments in community-based services and support, and reducing recidivism in the process. 

States have also invested in evidence-based programs to address underlying community problems: police-community partnerships to address violence, training for officers responding to people with mental illness, and community-based behavioral health services like crisis stabilization, housing supports, and substance abuse treatment.

Without question, the JRI did important work to change narratives about incarceration, shift state budget priorities, and reduce prison populations. All this was through the lens of what was politically feasible,” explained Juliene James, Director of Criminal Justice at Arnold Ventures, who previously served as a senior policy advisor at BJA

The Urban Institute reported that, between 2010 and 2016, 28 states saved or averted a total of $1.1 billion in costs attributable to reforms; another report calculated that 22 states reinvested a total of $557 million in community services and safety practices. 

The total state incarceration rate among the 35 JRI states has dropped by 11 percent, and recidivism has declined. If politicians were wary of reducing the prison population, James said, they were mostly convinced by the results.

United States of Reinvestment

Marc Levin
Marc Levin, chief of policy and innovation at Right on Crime, a conservative think tank that advocates for reform.

From state to state, the work of justice reinvestment has unfolded in different ways. Texas, an early adopter, illustrates the typical workings of the model. In 2007, its Legislature projected a need to build 17,000 prison beds at a cost of over $2 billion to accommodate its ballooning prison population. 

For many years, if the projection was that we needed more prisons, we just built them,” said Marc Levin, Chief of Policy and Innovation at Right on Crime, a conservative think tank that advocates for reform.

This time, the Legislature was ready to respond differently. Research on the drivers of prison growth showed that courts often sentenced people who were low-risk and convicted of nonviolent offenses to prison time because they lacked alternatives; overwhelming probation caseloads made adequate supervision nearly impossible. In response, the state passed a budget that increased the substance abuse and mental health treatment capacity by over 5,000 beds and slots and expanded diversion options in the probation and parole system.

Altogether, Texas allocated an additional $241 million to community-based treatment and supervision along with in-prison programs and halfway house beds, both of which had long waiting lists that were backlogging people in prison for months after being approved for parole.

Since 2007, Texas has seen its incarceration rate fall by 34 percent, while crime dropped by 40 percent below the national average. By the end of 2020, the state will have closed ten prisons.

I think there’s been a shift in philosophy,” said Levin. Obviously, there’s an accountability function, but we’re also trying to provide support to folks in terms of finding jobs, stable housing, and positive social peers.”

$241 million
Additional dollars Texas allocated to community-based treatment and supervision and in-prison programs and halfway house beds in 2007
Drop in Texas' incarceration rate since 2007 Source
Drop below the national average in crime in Texas since 2007 Source

Other states have also seen important impacts from justice reinvestment. Between 2012 and 2015, Georgia effected6 percent decrease in its prison population, leading to $264 million in savings on corrections and allowing the state to reinvest $57 million in community courts, job training programs, and reentry practices.

In North Carolina, where in 2010 the prison population was projected to grow 10 percent in the coming decade, a justice reinvestment law helped the state close 11 prisons and reduce prison admissions by 16 percent, even as crime declined 26 percent. It has also saved over $543 million in corrections costs.

And in Pennsylvania, the prison population is 26.8 percent lower than it would have been without the 2012 justice reinvestment legislation. Additionally, the state’s $2.6 billion annual corrections budget is 23.3 percent lower than projected — resulting in an estimated savings of roughly $543 million.

States that had plans to build prisons are able to scuttle those plans and instead make investments in community-based programs,” said Clement. And some states have been able to actually reduce the prison population, close correctional facilities, and generate savings.”

Colorado’s model in particular is worth studying. In 2009, the Colorado Legislature passed a parole reform bill that saved money and expanded residential treatment through community corrections. But in 2014, it overhauled the idea with a model it calls community reinvestment,” driven by the nonprofit Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition(CCJRC).

Colorado’s model hews closer to the original idea that Tucker and Cadora outlined in their 2003 paper, with money going directly to community groups rather than other public safety agencies. The community itself can play a pivotal, front-line role in the health and safety of the community,” said Christie Donner, Founder and Executive Director of CCJRC.

States that had plans to build prisons are able to scuttle those plans and instead make investments in community-based programs.
Marshall Clement Deputy Director of Policy and Strategic Planning at the Council of State Governments Justice Center

Having worked in justice reform for 25 years, Donner gathered support in the Legislature for a bill that initially reallocated $1 million from the corrections department to fund the new Work and Gain Education and Employment Skills program, or WAGEES. The program’s budget goes to grantmaking for community-led organizations that provide services — especially employment and education assistance — to people reentering their communities after a period of incarceration. The majority of staff at these reentry programs are formerly incarcerated, and their leadership has reshaped the field of reentry in Colorado.

WAGEES has shown promising results. Preliminary studies show demand for its services is high, and early recidivism outcomes are encouraging.

The state has increased funding to WAGEES to almost $8 million this year, which supports a network of 20 local nonprofit service providers. CCJRC has also successfully advocated for the state Legislature to create other community reinvestment initiatives, including support for underserved crime survivors that is focused on people of color, men, and young adults; a pre-arrest diversion program that uses the principles of harm reduction to serve those with substance use disorders; and a place-based crime-prevention initiative that in 2017 reallocated $4 million per year from parole to support both community-based services and small-business lending in two communities of color with high incarceration rates.

All told, these four initiatives will provide over $80 million to community-led health and safety efforts through 2023.

Defunding the Police

A woman takes a moment in front of the mural of George Floyd in Houston following his death at the hands of Minneapolis police on May 25, which lead to protests against police brutality. (Aaron M. Sprecher/​Associated Press)

With protests against police brutality roiling the nation since a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd, an unarmed Black citizen, in late May, many are considering how to reduce spending on policing and increase investments in services and safety for communities of color. 

Police budgets, for so long, were completely impervious to any kind of criticism — until now,” said James. She believes the experiences of justice reinvestment approach — or something similar — could provide lessons for policymakers responding to the demands of activists. 

As a process, it demonstrated that a shared understanding of the problems, based in data, could bring people together to support solutions, said James. Rather than advocating for a specific solution, justice reinvestment helped policymakers understand the cost and outcome tradeoffs of changes to policy and investment. State policymakers could and did move funding from prison budgets into less punitive services that could address some of the causes of prison growth. 

Yet justice reinvestment as a process does not determine how far policymakers are willing to go. The successful organizing by so many community leaders is changing what is politically possible, and in this moment, legislators may face greater pressure to reinvest more broadly in what communities want. 

For some advocates, however, the JRI did not do nearly enough. Atkinson expressed profound disappointment that, in his experience, the approach tends to reserve a relatively small portion for community-based organizations.

Colorado’s community reinvestment” approach may hold promise — and be a better analogy for what defunding advocates want. I think Colorado might have a closest thing to a true reinvestment model,” said Atkinson.

At Forward Justice, he has committed to driving more equitable reinvestment practices. A recent report on the initiative in North Carolina makes recommendations, based on community input, to invest more heavily in education, employment, housing, and health services — institutions with deep links to public safety.

Atkinson extends those lessons of justice reinvestment to today’s urgent conversation on policing. The remedy is not just a law enforcement component,” he said. You have to get at those other socioeconomic indicators of health that contribute to the safety and wellness of communities.”