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Len Sipes: From the nation’s capital this is DC Public Safety. I’m your host Leonard Sipes. Ladies and gentlemen, our title for today’s show: Public Opinion, Sentencing, and Parole and Probation. We’re very happy to have Adam Gelb. Adam is the Director of the Public Safety Performance Project, which helps advance policies and practices in adult and juvenile sentencing and corrections that protect public safety, hold offenders accountable and control correctional costs. As project lead, Adam oversees Pew’s assistance to states and also research. He’s been involved in crime control and prevention for the past 25 years as a journalist, congressional aide, a senior state government official. He graduated from the University of Virginia, and holds a master’s degree from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. Adam, welcome to DC Public Safety.
Adam Gelb: Great to be with you, Len.
Len Sipes: Full disclosure. Adam and I worked together in the state of Maryland when he was a senior aide to the lieutenant governor, who eventually ran for governor. And I was leading public information for a state agency, law enforcement and correctional agency. So Adam and I have worked together. I’ve seen Adam lead this charge in person. Nobody is a more passionate person and a more knowledgeable person on the issue of crime and justice. I want to read very quickly from one of the findings from Pew, in terms of the research that they do. “American voters believe that too many people are in prison and the nation spends too much on prison. Voters overwhelmingly support a variety of policy changes that shift non-violent offenders from prison to more effective, less expensive alternatives.” Number three. “Support for sentencing and correction reforms, including reduced prison terms, is strong across political parties, regions, age, gender, and racial and ethnic groups.” Adam, the whole idea of Pew and the Public Safety Performance Project, give me a definition in one sentence.
Adam Gelb: You said it very well yourself, right?
Len Sipes: Yeah, I did, but I –
Adam Gelb: We have –
Len Sipes: We need to hear from you, in one sentence.
Adam Gelb: We help states advance policies and practices that protect public safety, hold offenders accountable, and control corrections costs.
Len Sipes: When you and I talked in the past and I say, “Adam, this whole issue of offender reentry.” You said, “Leonard, we’re not an offender reentry program. We’re about systematic policy change within the criminal justice system; within the United States. That does the things that you just articulated.” Correct?
Adam Gelb: That’s right, yeah. Our project does look at the bigger system than just the very tail end of the system and making sure that when offenders get out of prison they’re set up for success.
Len Sipes: Okay.
Adam Gelb: We look at the whole system from front end to back end, and, right, the bulk of what we do is join into partnerships with states. When the governor, senior legislative leadership, the chief justice, and judicial leaders, say, “We’ve got a problem here, we’d like to take a look at it, see what we can do about bending the curve on our corrections growth and making sure that prisons are holding the right people.” And then we come in, and working with a bipartisan, inner branch taskforce, take a look at the state’s data. What specifically is driving the population, what’s caused it to rise? We also do a look at the corrections and reentry policies. To what extent is that agency or agencies implementing what we know to be evidence based practices? Based on that, and at only at that point, once we’ve taken a look at the data and the trends, do we then start to fashion policy solutions. And based on what the research says about what works, based on what other state experiences have been about what works or not, then we help the state put together a set of policy recommendations. And then thirdly, and this is really important about what we do, is that we don’t just help the state and that taskforce put together a nice pretty report with fancy graphs and great recommendations that’s going to sit on the shelf. All right, there’s an integral involvement of all the stakeholder groups and agencies from the get-go, and certainly the governor and the legislative leadership. And so our reports tend to make it across the finish line in the legislature and not sit on a shelf.
Len Sipes: What you’re looking for is systematic change at the state level. You’re looking for systematic policy changes that reduce cost to state yet at the same time improve public safety.
Adam Gelb: That’s exactly right.
Len Sipes: All right. And through that – and I’m going to say this, and it’s not my opinion. I’m not expressing my opinion at all. I’ve talked to a wide variety of people at the national level, at the state level. Some people believe – again, I represent the federal government. I work with a lot of federal agencies. I do not mean to embarrass them. I love them half to death. But a lot of people express the opinion that Pew is not a leader in this issue of systematic change within the criminal justice system, Pew is the leader. Pew writes material in such a way that the average person can understand it, the average member of the general assembly, that person’s aide; citizens can understand what it is that you’re talking about. You have a wonderful flow in your writing. You have a comprehensive strategy in terms of your media events, of the video that you create. There’s something very, very strategic in terms of the way that you communicate. You communicate in a way that government seems to be incapable of doing. Am I right or wrong?
Adam Gelb: Well, we have a few advantages there, both in terms of resources and in terms of the politics, right? Pew is an independent organization that’s self-funded to do this work and so we do have a little bit more freedom to be creative in the way that we communicate.
Len Sipes: And government cannot. That’s the interesting thing. People have simply said Pew can, that’s the answer they’ve given, that Pew has the ability to communicate, government has an innate inability to communicate.
Adam Gelb: Well, take the polling that you started off the segment with here.
Len Sipes: Right, right.
Adam Gelb: We are able to go out and partner with some of the top pollsters in this country. One of the top Republican pollsters and one of the Democratic pollsters team together on the poll that you mentioned and were able to document, with research and public opinion, where people are on this, right. And I think the point that you’re making and one of the reasons why we’re seeing so much change around the country at this point is that elected officials are, I think, finally catching up with where voters and citizens are on these issues. People are sick and tired of the revolving door.
Len Sipes: How many states are you talking about, that Pew is involved in?
Adam Gelb: About half the states. Over the past seven years –
Len Sipes: So you’re talking about 25 year – 25 states over the course of the last seven years, systematic examination as to how they do business, systematic examination as to how they can change?
Adam Gelb: That’s right.
Len Sipes: 25 states in the United States and you’ve been able to do that on a systematic basis.
Adam Gelb: We’ve been working hard. We’ve had a tremendous amount of help from our partners at the Council of State Government’s Justice Center, the Vera Institute of Justice, the Crime and Justice Institute, and many others.
Len Sipes: Office of Justice Programs, yes.
Adam Gelb: BGA and the Office of Justice Programs, an integral partner in this effort. And it’s been an amazing public-private partnership, particularly in that our strength and focus of our dollars can be on the front end of these reforms, trying to make sure that there is a solid policy package put together and making it across the finish line to legislature. And then BGA has been able to really come in after that and provide some support to these states to make sure that the changes, and there are lots of them in many of these comprehensive packages, are actually implemented. Because I think we all realize that a lot of this structural policy change that you’re talking about sometimes isn’t worth the paper that it’s printed on unless there’s real follow-through by the courts and by probation and parole agencies.
Len Sipes: Okay. I do, just out of respect for Pew, is to get across the point that Pew is multilayered, Pew has been around for, what, 150,000 years, and multilayered, they do a lot of different things. It’s really surprising how Pew is a daily part of my life as a bureaucrat within a federal agency in terms of daily news summary, in terms of the material that you give me, in terms of public opinion of polls, Pew is multilayered.
Adam Gelb: It certainly is. There are projects in many different areas of public policy, health policy, environment policy, and it’s been fabulous that the Institution has committed as much energy and resource as it has over the past seven years to an area that is not really commonly thought of in a lot of philanthropic circles.
Len Sipes: Okay. Let’s get down to the 25 states. Office of Justice Program, Bureau of Justice Assistance, Pew, Council of States, I mean the lot of organizations involved in terms of systematic change within states. I talk to reporters and reporters say, “Okay, so this is all going on, this sense of systematic change at the state level. How many criminologists have we talked to over the course of our careers who said, “I really believe that we should systematically do it differently,” that we do over-incarcerate, that there should be more alternatives to incarceration? I contend that reporters and street cops are two of the most jaded groups of people on the face of the earth. They’re cynical. They look at me and their question is, “So what? Show me the results as to where the alternatives, whatever they happen to be, that are truly having an impact in terms of reduced crime, and improved justice, and at the same time reductions in costs for the criminal justice system. Show me. Show me. Show me.” When I respond, I run off a list of research that has had an impact, and their response is, “Okay, that doesn’t quite do it for me.” Because most research projects when they are successful, not all are successful, run in the ballpark of about 15% reduction in recidivism. They’re interested in a safer America. Can you deliver on a safer America?
Adam Gelb: I think we’re seeing governors and state legislators and judicial leaders across this country in those 25 states that have gone through the justice reinvestment process, I think we’re seeing them deliver.
Len Sipes: Okay.
Adam Gelb: Right? And they are. And I hope it’s well known with your audience that Texas was one of the first states to go through this kind of process, and that in Texas, in the last seven years, the prison population has stabilized. They expected to have to spend at this point now more than two billion dollars to accommodate the increased growth that they were projecting. They haven’t had to spend that money. The recidivism rate, pro-revocation rate, in that state is down by well over a third. And public safety, the most important piece of this puzzle, has improved across the state. The crime rate in Texas is back down to where it was in the 1960s.
Len Sipes: And reporters are going to say, “Well, Leonard, but most states have seen reductions in crime across the board.” We’re just coming off an almost continuous 20 year reduction in crime across the board, as measured by the FBI, as measured by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. However, for the last couple years, it’s starting to go up, both on the property and violent crime. So the fact that there have been reductions in the past in any state can be explained, as a journalist would say, by the reductions in all states. So how do we through systematic change, prove that we’re improving public safety, that we’re making people’s lives safer?
Adam Gelb: I think the numbers clearly show it, right. There’re national trends and then there are state by state trends. And what you really have to do if you want to examine this closely is take a look at Texas, take a look at South Carolina, take a look at Georgia, take a look at Ohio, and some of the other states that have made these changes. And what’s clear is that they’ve been able to save a tremendous amount of taxpayer money by not having to build and open and staff new prisons. And they’ve been able to do so while continuing along with that general national trend towards lower crime over the past several years. And in the last couple years the numbers also sort of mirror the national average. So what’s starting to happen, Len, is that there’s the myth that incarceration and crime rates move together in some lock step. That myth is being shattered. It’s being shattered in state after state across the country, where states that have reduced their incarceration rates have also reduced their crime rates. In fact the 29 states that have reduced their incarceration rates over the past few years, the crime rate has gone down in all of them but three.
Len Sipes: So and that’s your point. The point is, is that there has been systematic change in these states if you’re going to predict the fact that there’s been less incarceration, that your crime rate has gone up, that hasn’t happened.
Adam Gelb: No it hasn’t and –
Len Sipes: So it’s gone down concurrently with a reduction within prison population?
Adam Gelb: It has. And I think the conversation at the national level when you talk at sort of a big conceptual level, that it immediately does go toward, “Well, what’s the relationship between crime and incarceration?” At the local level, the state level, what policy makers are starting to realize, when they’ve seen, “Okay, we’re not building these prisons, okay, we’re scaling this back and crime is going down.” or it’s maybe starting to tick up a little bit, nationally what’s going on here? They start to look at other factors that influence the crime rate, particularly the police. And this is where, right, that you need to make sure, in part of these conversations, what’s happened with the ranks of police forces across this country gets some time in that conversation. Because police forces have had to lay off, in some cases, tremendous portions of their –
Len Sipes: Oh, in New Jersey there are towns that have laid off 50% of their people.
Adam Gelb: So –
Len Sipes: It’s been amazing what’s going on throughout the country.
Adam Gelb: Right. So at the local level people are starting to see, this is not all just about how many people you put in prison and how long you keep them there, definitely one factor. Nobody in this conversation, in a serious conversation about these issues is going to argue that the increased imprisonment didn’t have any impact on the reduction in crime.
Len Sipes: And that’s a good point.
Adam Gelb: What we’re seeing now, though, is that most people, including policymakers, realizing that we have passed a tipping point on this. We’ve long since now passed a point of diminishing returns, where not only will more prisons not necessarily reduce crime, they’re just not even close to the most cost at more prisons, not close the most cost-effective way to reduce crime.
Len Sipes: I want to get very quickly to the other thing that I’ve heard from reporters, this issue is principally a way for states to cut costs, not necessarily public safety, but a way to cut costs. But before I get to that I’m going to reintroduce you. Adam Gelb is at our microphones today. He is the Director of the Public Safety Performance Project of Pew. And certainly Pew, as I said before, I’m not quite sure that I can be more praise or suggest more praise for Pew than I possibly can. It is either the leader of change in the criminal justice system in this country or certainly a partner with a lot of other organizations in terms of systematic change within the criminal justice system within this country. www.pewpublicsafety.org, www.pewpublicsafety.org. The criticism that, “Leonard, okay, so all these states are doing all these things because they’re tired of spending so much money on incarceration and that’s all you’re doing. Yes, you’re cutting costs and that’s well documented, but they’re doing it solely for that, they’re not doing it for systematic change within the criminal justice system.”
Adam Gelb: Budget trouble is definitely bringing states to the table; it’s just not the meal.
Len Sipes: Okay.
Adam Gelb: Right? Policymakers across the country are not holding their noses and saying, “I know this going to really cause an increase in crime and I hate to do it, but we do have to, at the state level, make ends meet, we have to balance our budget, so we’re just going to have to make some of these tough policy calls.” That is not what we see happening in state after state. What we do see happening are three things. First is they are seeing the success of states like Texas and South Carolina and other states that we just talked about, states that have significantly bent the curve on their prison growth, and even reduced population, and are seeing reduced recidivism because of the reinvestment into stronger probation and parole programs, and they’re seeing those state crime rates go down. So they’re starting to see this iron linkage broken between locking up more people and having safer streets. The second thing that’s happening is they’re becoming increasingly aware of where the public is on this and I think our polling has helped there; but more and more just in daily conversation you find that people realize at this point after 25, 30 years of ever increasing prison populations that we’re not going to build our way to public safety and that there are much more effective and less expensive approaches for lower level offenders. They also are aware and think that they don’t have some specific amount of time that they want to see offenders behind bars for. The want to see a high percentage of the sentence served, but they don’t really care if that’s a five year sentence or a three year sentence. They just want to know when the judge says three years; you’re going to serve pretty much all that three years. That is starting to seep into some of these conversations. Other parts of the public opinion constellation here include victims speaking out and also saying, “Now, this is not all about locking up as many people for as long as possible.” This is, “I realize these people are going to get out and I want them to pay restitution, I want them to be held accountable, but I also don’t want them to claim new victims.” And so we need to strengthen reentry. We have business leaders, Len, stepping forward in many of these states and saying this is now an issue just the overall economic vitality of the state. The corrections budgets have been the second fastest growing part of state budgets behind only Medicaid.
Len Sipes: That’s what I want to explore.
Adam Gelb: And this is not the right way to go. Let me just add that you certainly have a lot of conservative voices that you’ve mentioned that are speaking up here now and realizing that having 1 in 100 adults behind bars is not consistent with conservative notions of limited government and fiscal discipline.
Len Sipes: Let me get into that. For the first time in my over 40 years within the criminal justice system, I’m seeing people on both sides of the political asile come together under one banner, under one topic, and that is, again, systematic change. Doing it differently, getting a better result for our criminal justice dollar. I’ve not seen that before. I’ve not seen some of the public opinion data that you’re sharing swinging in the direction of, “Hey, let’s not have 75%, 80% recidivism in terms of re-arrests, let’s not have 50% recidivism in terms of re-incarceration. The state simply can’t afford that. My God! We don’t have money for schools; we don’t have money for colleges. Can we reduce this rate of recidivism? Can we rearrange how we do things?” I’ve never seen such a coalescence of opinion from despaired groups before on this issue of crime and justice.
Adam Gelb: There’s a tremendous shift that’s happening and it’s hard to put your finger on exactly why it’s happening. Why is Jeb Bush, why is Newt Gingrich, why are Grover Norquist, Bill Bennett, David Keene, why are these folks who are and have been leaders of the conservative movement coming forward now and saying the system has gotten too big, it’s gotten too expensive, it needs to be rethought dramatically?
Len Sipes: It needs to be more effective at what it does.
Adam Gelb: And it really derives – right, the point in time is sort of what’s hard to fix. The reasons behind it are not difficult to discern at all, right. One is straightforward limited government. 1 in 100 behind bars, almost 1 in 31 under some form of correctional supervision, prison, jail, probation, parole, it’d be even a little higher if we counted pretrial. That is big and it’s costly. And so that’s one perspective, the limited government perspective and the fiscal discipline perspective. There’re also big strains of this movement that look at the victim piece of this and recognize that serving time in a state prison does not do anything to help make that victim whole, particularly lower level property offenders, that it’s more consistent with conservative notions of justice.
Len Sipes: The focus is violent offenders versus nonviolent offenders. And so much of this focus is looking at the nonviolent offenders and can we do, “Something else with the nonviolent offenders.”? The violent offenders – we’re basically making room for the more dangerous folks, are we not, in terms of this whole concept of effectiveness?
Adam Gelb: That is a constant theme in the States. What policymakers tell us they want to see out of the policy packages, and they certainly see this when they look at the data, in terms of increasing numbers of technical violators taking up prison space, is that’s not who they want behind bars. They want behind bars the serious, the chronic, the violent, and the high-risk offenders.
Len Sipes: Okay. We only have eight minutes left in the program. I want to ask a personal question and I want to move on to more policy issues. Number one, you’ve ridden this horse from the very beginning, and I would imagine, as you’re sitting on top of your horse, when started with Pew, when you’re looking out at all you can see is 10,000 cattle milling about. And you’re saying to yourself, “It’s impossible to get all these critters moving in one direction.” And you have. So what is your personal sense of accomplishment after all these years, or non-accomplishment?
Adam Gelb: There are a lot of cynics who think that this is all about the budgets. As you just said, that we’re really not adding a lot of value here, this would be happening anyway or it’s happening only because the budgets. That there’s really not some fundamental shift in the national conversation here and even if there is it’ll be temporary and it won’t last much longer beyond when budgets recover. That’s not what we see happening. We do see a fundamental shift in the conversation and the perspective on this issue happening. We had for a long time a situation where policymakers thought it was the right approach to this issue and it was their job to say, “How do I demonstrate that I’m tough on crime?”
Len Sipes: Right.
Adam Gelb: Now what they’re saying is, “How do I get taxpayers a better public safety return on their correction spending?” And I think that’s an important shift and it’s one that’ll last.
Len Sipes: Give me five specifics. Because I think it was a very modest answer. I think I would’ve been scared half to death sitting on top of that horse looking out at the sea of cattle that I’m trying to get moving in one direction. I think you’re being modest. Number two. And I think Pew is being modest. I think Pew should crow more about what it’s done. I think it’s been a sea change. Number two. Give me, and reporters ask me this all the time, give me the five fundamental changes that one needs to advocate for to provide a systematic change that reduces cost and improves public safety all at the same time. The first from a parole and probation perspective that I always give is to do an independent analysis of that individual to judge their risk to public safety and to judge what their need are so you’re dealing with that person individually and not just as a class so you can design a program that will specifically deal with what it is that he or she needs. Risk and needs assessment. That’s one of my answers, do you have others?
Adam Gelb: There’re many. To build off of what you were just saying. We do know now what works to stop the cycle recidivism. No magic bullets. No way to guarantee that somebody’s not going to commit another crime. But we do know how to do risk assessment much better. We do have much better surveillance technology. We know –
Len Sipes: GPS, is that what we’re talking about?
Adam Gelb: We’re talking about GPS; we’re talking about rapid result drug tests.
Len Sipes: All right.
Adam Gelb: So we know more about how to change behavior, we have better technologies to help us do that. We need to get –
Len Sipes: To better accountability tools?
Adam Gelb: Across the board.
Len Sipes: Okay.
Adam Gelb: It’s very different. The challenge is less so in terms of knowing what to do but in terms of actually getting it done.
Len Sipes: Right.
Adam Gelb: And what we’re seeing in these states is the recognition that there are a good number of lower level offenders in the prison system, particularly those who are technical violators and not having committed a new crime or not been convicted of a new crime. And if you can change laws and practices about who goes in, and you can capture some of those savings and reinvest them into some of the probation and parole programs that follow the evidence based technologies then you can have a tremendous impact on both cost and on public safety.
Len Sipes: All right, so the state saves 20 million dollars, you want 10 of that reinvested in the programs, parole and probation or rehab programs or treatment programs that could have a direct impact on the rest of the people staying out of the criminal justice system.
Adam Gelb: That’s the formula.
Len Sipes: Okay. What else?
Adam Gelb: One of the things that we’re seeing a lot of interest in the states in is in swift and certain sanctions. The states are realizing that you have to hold people accountable –
Len Sipes: Sanctions mean the guy under supervision screws up and you’ve got to do something about it.
Adam Gelb: There’s an immediate and a swift response, but it’s not severe. You don’t wait until somebody violates 10, 12 times and then do something about it. There’s a lot of interest in incentives, all right? For a long time the prison system has incentivized good behavior behind the walls by saying you could earn credits off your sentence. What we’re seeing now is a lot of states interested in transferring that concept to the community and saying, “If you’re out on probation or parole and you’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing, you’re going to treatment, you’re testing clean, and so on, you’re paying your victim restitution, then you can earn time off your supervision period.” And that does two things. It incentivizes good behavior by offenders in compliant behavior, and then it calls off the lower risk offenders off of case loads, right, so that supervision officers can actually spend their time on people who are not complying. And that’s what research tells us is going to produce the biggest impact on public safety.
Len Sipes: People have suggested to me that we’ve got to reduce the amount of time spent on parole and probation. If you have a person for five years on parole and probation that person’s going to go back. You cannot, the pope could not live a clean life during an endless period on parole and probation. I apologize if I’ve been disrespectful to anybody. Few could live five years on parole and probation without messing up, without the possibility of returning back to the system. So what some people suggest is that you tell the person, “You give me one good year of no violations, you work, no drug positives, you do all the things you’re supposed to do. If you’re a nonviolent offender, I’ll go back, and then after a year of compliance, I’ll go back and recommend that we no longer supervise you.” But across the board, people are recommending lower times for supervision on parole and probation.
Adam Gelb: That’s right. I think practice is starting to catch up with the research on this question.
Len Sipes: Anything else quickly? We’ve got about 30 seconds left.
Adam Gelb: Yeah, I think you were asking about interventions and programs.
Len Sipes: Yes.
Adam Gelb: I’d like to really put the emphasis on the process.
Len Sipes: Okay.
Adam Gelb: I think one of the reasons why states have been as successful as they have been working with us and CSG and others on this is that they have not put the cart before the horse. They’ve taken a look at their data; they’ve taken a look at their systems, and from that, determined what policies and programs are missing and what’s the best fit. And that has just been an absolutely critical part of this process. It’s changed the whole thing around from, “What’s a good program? Or what should we do ideologically?” to “What does the data say?”
Len Sipes: So if we’re going to have systematic change we need systematic analysis. And that’s where Pew, and BJA, and OJP, and the Center for State Governments, that’s where they all come in.
Adam Gelb: That’s right.
Len Sipes: All right. Adam, it’s been a fascinating conversation. It went by way too fast as it always does. Adam Gelb is the director of the Public Safety Performance Project for Pew. www.pewpublicsafety.org, www.pewpublicsafety.org. Ladies and gentlemen, this is DC Public Safety. We appreciate your comments. We even appreciate your criticism. And we want everybody to have themselves a very, very pleasant day.