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Leonard: From the nation’s capital, this is DC Public Safety. I’m your host, Leonard Sipes. Ladies and gentleman, back at our microphone is Adam Gelb. Adam is the director of the Public Safety Performance Project at the Pew Charitable Trust, www.pewtrusts, with an S, T-R-U-S-T-S, .org/publicsafety. Adam and Pew, certainly one of the best organizations, if not the best, in terms of fundamental change within the criminal justice system, and that’s today’s show title, . Adam Gelb, welcome back to DC Public Safety.
Adam: It’s great to be with you again, Len.
Leonard: Adam, this is such an interesting topic because it is bubbling all throughout the United States, fundamental change within the criminal justice system. Pew has done a yeoman’s job in terms of working with a wide variety of state, and counties, and cities to try to analyze their criminal justice system and to come up with ways to protect public safety but do things differently, correct?
Adam: That’s right. Len, there are really two pieces of knowledge that have driven a lot of this over time. There’s a political dynamic that’s been afoot in the country for a long time that said we should just be tough on crime and lock as many people up for as long as possible, but the extent to which there are two pieces of information are driven. One is that the notion that if you kept prisons growing, then you would keep crime shrinking. If we just kept building more and more prisons and locking up more and more people for longer, then crime would fall.
The second has been that on an individual level if we kept offenders behind bars longer, they would be less likely to reoffend when they got out. Those are the two relationships that have underlay a lot of the policy in this area. It turns out both of them are not true, and that research that we have done on a national level and many other organizations have as well, but also at the state level, has really shown that those are in fact myths, that you can reduce crime and incarceration at the same time and that keeping most offenders in for long periods of time actually doesn’t do anything to reduce recidivism. It increased costs and it certainly increased punishment, and many offenders may be deserving of that, but longer lengths of stay do not equate to lower levels of recidivism.
Leonard: Go ahead, Adam.
Adam: We start to see these numbers in the states, and it’s been over five years now, Len, that states have been reducing crime and incarceration rates, that this ironclad relationship that a lot of people thought existed between rising imprisonment and falling crime is no longer the case. With respect to studies in individual states, when you compare similar offenders who have different lengths of stay, and make other changes, we see no evidence there either. These two fundamental pieces that are starting to crumble is what’s fueling a lot of the fundamental change in the justice system that you talk about.
Leonard: You’re talking about improving public safety. You’re talking about making people see for focusing on people who are truly dangerous doing “something else” with all the others. We’re not just talking about lessening the rate of incarceration. We’re just not talking about fewer people going to prison. Your fundamental message is not that. Your fundamental message is, we can protect public safety and at the same time use our resources to their best possible advantage.
Adam: That’s exactly right.
Leonard: Okay, but why? What started all this? What started this discussion about, “We don’t have to send everybody to prison, we don’t have to send everybody to prison for the length of time that we’ve done in the past”? Where did this conversation start and why did it start?
Adam: We really trace it back, Len, to Texas. You and I have talked about this a number of times, that in 2007 the Texas legislature, and Rick Perry was governor, just said no to the Corrections Department’s request to build another 14,000 to 17,000 prison beds over the coming five years. Now this is the state, Texas, that in 1987 had 50,000 people in prison and 20 years later had 150,000 people in prison, and were being asked in that legislative session to keep on that same path and to keep building. There’s an assumption out there I think, Len, that a lot of what’s happening in the criminal justice arena today and over the past few years has been driven by a need to save money and by budget concerns. There’s no question about that. You’d be naïve to think that that doesn’t play into it at all, but if you think back to 2006 when the plans in Texas were beginning to hatch and then into 2007, the economy was humming at that point.
In fact, Lehman Brothers didn’t collapse till the fall 0f 2008, and the economic downturn started at that point. You had a situation in Texas where leadership just said, “No, we’re not going to keep continuing on this path. Let’s find some more cost effective things to do,” even though they weren’t under the budget gun at the time. As you can imagine, Texas is the very symbol of law and order in this country. Nobody believes that if Texas is going to do something on criminal justice, it’s going to be soft on crime or soft on criminals. The fact that Texas did what it did in 2007 has resonated very loudly in capitals around the country and more than any other single thing I think has helped motivate this wave of reform that we’re seeing.
Leonard: In my discussions with my counterparts throughout the country, I think it’s justifiable to say that every governor in the United States has had a conversation with every Public Safety Secretary, Director of Corrections in the United States. The fundamental question is how can we bring down our expenditures, because in many states, Corrections is the second largest expenditure in their states? I’ve seen in some states it’s close to being the first or the largest expenditure, that every governor has had a conversation with every Public Safety Secretary basically saying, “How can we protect public safety and control the amount of money going into Corrections?” Is that right or wrong?
Adam: I can’t speak for all 50 states, but certainly there have been over 30 states now that have enacted some type of comprehensive reforms. Those conversations in those states have happened, and it’s this Texas example where not only did they not build those prisons, but they put hundreds of millions of dollars into various alternatives, the proverbial “something else” you mentioned a few minutes ago, various treatment and diversion options on both the front and the back end of the system, and the results they’ve gotten, which include a dramatic reduction in parole revocations, include now cumulative about three billion dollars in savings that they count from not having to build over what is now the past seven years, and most importantly, the crime rate in Texas falling right in tandem with the national average. Those kind of results speak loudly to governors and Corrections directors across the country.
Leonard: The conversation is just not Pew. I did want to point that out. I mean I love Pew, but I think Pew is truly the leader in this, but it’s the Department of Justice, it’s lots of other agencies at the national level who are joining together, the National Council of State Governments, American Probation and Parole Association, and many others are all coming together and pretty much basically saying that there’s no way that the Criminal Justice System can continue as it’s been, we can’t afford it, or they’re fundamentally opposed to it philosophically, but for whatever reason, this conversation has been going on since the recession. Pew certainly has been at the forefront of it. Explain to me and explain to the audience what that means. You go in and work with the states to analyze their systems. Take it from there.
Adam: Sure. I appreciate your kind words in pointing out the partnership that Pew does have with the Justice Department, Attorney General Lynch, Assistant Attorney General Karol Mason, and in particular, the Director of the Bureau of Justice Assistance, Denise O’Donnell. It really is an extraordinary public/private partnership. It’s not just that in name but that we really couldn’t be doing this kind of work and supporting the states in this way without the relative strengths that we have in our organizations and this partnership. What we do is have conversations with leadership in these states and assess the extent to which they are ready, willing, and able to tackle a comprehensive analysis of their system and then act on the findings. There have been, as we said a few minutes ago, more than two dozen, it’s really coming up on three dozen, states now that have raised their hands and said, “We want to do this process,” which we call justice reinvestment. Once they do that, the participating states then go through at least three phases of work. The first is an analysis of their system to identify what’s been driving the prison growth and where the Corrections systems in those states are and are not in alignment with evidence based practices. Once those things are ascertained, then you move to the second phase, which is policy development, saying, “Okay, we know where the problems are, the solutions, and what does the research tell us about what would be effective, and what does the evidence from other states that have done reforms tell us about what works and what doesn’t?”
Then we help facilitate consensus on a bipartisan interbranch working group that includes prosecutors and defense counsel as well as legislators and Corrections officials on a comprehensive package of reform. The last phase of course is to make sure that this is not a great report with wonderful recommendations based on evidence, and data, and research that then sits on a shelf. We do provide support to these working groups and to state leadership to help make sure that the recommendations cross the finish line in the legislature and are implemented.
Leonard: You mentioned it before. I want to hammer it home. Within the majority of the states that you’ve worked with, rates of incarceration have come down concurrently with crime decreasing. Am I right or wrong?
Adam: That’s correct. More than 30 states now in the past five years are seeing reductions in both crime and incarceration rates.
Leonard: That’s phenomenal, don’t you think, because, again, we have spent decades, if not longer, philosophically believing that the more people you lock up, the safer people are going to be?
Adam: That’s absolutely right. That’s one of those two myths we talked about up front. More than half of the states now are dispelling it. It’s a hugely important piece of the puzzle here. I can’t overstate it.
Leonard: I just want to refocus again that people who are truly violent, dangerous, we’re not talking about them. We’re talking about “everybody else.” People who pose a clear and present danger to the public safety, we’re not talking about doing anything else with them besides incarceration, but that leaves literally just lots of other people caught up in the Criminal Justice System that we can do alternatives, we can employ alternatives, and do something else with them. Do I have that right?
Adam: You do have that right, though the conversation is changing. If you look at what Texas did and the first few states that engaged in this process in 2007, 8, and 9, you would see fewer reforms and reforms that were mostly focused on slowing the revolving door, and particularly responding differently to violations of probation and parole, and making sure that the violations and violators are held accountable for those violations through various means, whether it’s curfew or community service or short jail stays, but not through revocation back to a $29,000 a year taxpayer funded prison cell, that there were more effective, less expensive ways to deal with violators.
If you look the last three years, and the comprehensive reform packages that have been passed in Mississippi, and in Utah, and in South Dakota, and Georgia, and North Carolina, these are much more comprehensive packages that look at the front end of the system and particularly at property offenders and drug offenders, and in many cases change those laws directly up front to say certain offenders who we have been sending to prison shouldn’t be going to prison at all in the first place. One of the most common reforms has been to change the felony theft threshold, which determines whether something is a misdemeanor or a felony and eligible for state prison.
A number of states have raised those thresholds and also changed the thresholds of drug quantities and the amount of drugs that trigger a felony level and penalties and prison exposure. As this has happened, I think it’s opened up the conversation. Len, you’re probably aware that there’s a group out there now called Cut50, and actually several groups, which now have as their outright objective to cut the prison population in half over the next several years. I don’t think you would have seen that back in 2007. I don’t think anybody would have bothered trying to make that suggestion. It may be a big stretch at this point, but enough people think that the problem is big enough and that the solutions are now exposed that we know what to do, that it’s a goal that’s worth talking about.
Leonard: We’re halfway through the program. Our guest today is Adam Gelb, the Director of the Public Safety Performance Project at the Pew Charitable Trust, www.pewtrusts, with an S, .org/publicsafety, www.pewtrusts.org/publicsafety. Again, as I said at the beginning of the program, I’ll say it now, Pew has certainly been a leader and some will suggest the leader in terms of fundamental change within the Criminal Justice System, which is the title of today’s program. Full disclosure, Adam and I both work with each other in the state of Maryland, and I’ll tell this story very quickly, Adam. I was sitting with Public Safety Secretary, Bishop Robinson, years ago, and I came to him in his office, and I sat down, and he goes, “Sipes, do you know how many people are violators of parole and probation from our intake population here in the state of Maryland?”
I said, “Mr. Secretary, I have no idea. I think it was 70%.” Then he looked at me rather sternly and said, “Do you mean to tell me all 70% of our intakes, all of these people, each and every one of them really needed to come off the street, really were a clear and present danger to public safety?” I said, “Well, Mr. Secretary, that’s probably a very good question.” We’ve gone from that very good question to actually operationalizing that concept, who do we take back into the prison system, and why, and under what circumstances, correct?
Adam: That’s absolutely right. This has been the biggest area of reform. As I mentioned, states have been at it for quite long. I wish we had national data on this. If we did, I suspect it would show that across the country the percent of prison admissions that are offenders from probation and parole being returned for technical violations has dropped, and I’d hope that it has dropped fairly substantially. This is the area of perhaps the strongest consensus around the country.
Leonard: The interesting part is that, you’re talking about justice reinvestment, and you’re talking about the idea of taking whatever savings states have and reinvest them back into either drug treatment or parole and probation so they can do a better job. All of this comes with agreement on people on both sides of the political spectrum, so now this is not just an issue that is driven by, if you will, the left. The people who are staunch conservatives are also behind this. They want to see a more efficient Criminal Justice System do a better job, and they feel that if they do a better job, and if they use research and best practices, it’s going to cost that state less. What they’re looking for is efficiency and a greater impact. You have all sides of the political spectrum supporting justice reinvestment or a fundamental change within the Criminal Justice System, correct?
Adam: That’s exactly right. I think this is where the influence of Texas is once again felt, and that is that the Texas Public Policy Foundation, which participated in the efforts back in 2005, 2007, that we’ve spoken of, has taken what happened in Texas on the road, if you will, and as a state based conservative think tank made connections with other leading conservatives who were starting to say supportive things about justice reform, being concerned about mandatory minimums, and the separation of powers, and some constitutional concerns there, as well as the overall size of Correction system, which as you know our report from Pew in early 2008 called 1 in 100 where we counted and documented that for the first time the nation’s total incarcerated population had reached 1 out of every 100 adults in this country being behind bars, that conservatives felt like that was not something that was consistent with principles of limited government and to the separate concept obviously from fiscal discipline.
You have now this organization called Right on Crime that that pulls together people like New Gingrich, and Grover Norquist, and Richard Viguerie, and Ken Cuccinelli, and others who for a variety of reasons and conservative principles that also include family preservation and of course at its core public safety are saying there are more effective, less expensive ways for the government to secure the public safety.
Leonard: One of the things I want you to do at this time, Adam, is to paint a picture as to where we could be, where we should be within the next five or ten years, but I do want to throw some caveats up here. I mean you’ve got over 30 states involved in this. It’s a national discussion. It seems to be picking up steam. We’re moving in the right direction. Let me throw a couple of roadblocks in the conversation. The numbers, sheer numbers, and the rates of incarceration, they’ve decreased but they haven’t decreased that much. There still seems I know in some states, there’s been a significant decrease, New York comes to mind, but the aggregate, the national numbers, if they’re coming down, they’re coming down very slowly, so people still seem to be vested in this concept of incarceration.
There still seems to be a sense of, “Okay, we need to change it, but let’s move very slowly. Let’s move very cautiously.” Am I right or wrong, and is that a roadblock? Is it going to take a long period of time to do this? Once we get beyond that, what happens five years, ten years down the road?
Adam: I think you’re right. This is tough to characterize because a few years ago, I think everybody thought that the prison population was going to defy the law of physics, everything that goes up must come down. Yet for 38 years in a row, the prison population went up. I don’t know of anybody you would have asked in 2005, 6, 7, “Are we going to see an actual decrease in the prison population or the incarceration rate,” I don’t think you would have many takers on that. The fact that we did go steadily up for nearly four decades, since the early 70s, and then actually level off and start to bend down is a see change in and of itself.
The 1 in 100 from 2007 actually became 1 in 110 at the end of 2013, and I think when the Justice Department releases the full census from the end of 2014, I think we’ll actually see it down another couple of notches, so a full 10% reduction in the nation’s total incarceration rate. That’s nothing to sneeze at. The question you’re asking about how long can we go is obviously a crystal ball kind of question I couldn’t answer, but I think the research supports that it could go a good bit lower without endangering public safety.
Leonard: Veterans courts, I just did a program on veterans courts with the National Institute of Corrections, and I don’t want to have a discussion about veterans courts, but that’s one example of diverting people out of the Criminal Justice System, drug courts, family courts, parole courts. The idea of not everybody needs to go back. There are other mechanisms to use instead of putting people in prison or putting people back in prison, reducing the sentences for individuals. We now have a case through the Federal Sentencing Commission that 8,000 individuals came out of the federal prison system, approximately 10% of their sentence early.
I think it averaged out to about two years. They’re leaving federal prisons, and I forget the total number, but I think it approaches 40,000. You have these efforts throughout the country to shorten sentences, to provide alternatives, not to send people automatically back to prison, and yet to hold individuals accountable with a Project Hope of Hawaii that’s now being replicated in two states through the Bureau of Justice Assistance, providing arrest and every time the person does something wrong, and for very short jail stays, one day, two days, three days, depending upon the circumstances. That seems to cut down on recidivism considerably and technical violations. Again, there’s all sorts of different ways of approaching this that I think is building towards a critical mass. I want you to define what that critical mass could be.
Adam: I wish I could, but you’re putting your finger on something that’s very important here, and it goes to that second myth I mentioned up front, which is the lack of relationship between length of stay and recidivism. Hawaii Hope, which was started by a former federal prosecutor, became a judge in state court in Hawaii, is maybe the ultimate example of that. People who were doing long stints are now recidivating less with just looking at a couple of days in jail. That kind of evidence is really starting to be produced and to make its way into policy makers’ hands.
Politically speaking then, that doesn’t automatically produce change, and there still are plenty of people who think that the best way to reduce crime is to lock up people and to keep them there as long as possible. I think a couple of things that are happening across the country right now do suggest that additional reform or deeper reform are going to become more difficult. One is the increase in the heroin problem. Second is the reported increase in murders in some cities across the country.
Leonard: Violent crime beyond murder, so we’re dealing with that issue as well.
Adam: Yes, no doubt. Now I think many of the commentators on this and mostly the people who have been asked to weigh in on why is this happening, why might we be seeing an increase in violent crime and murders in some cities across the country, most of them have pointed to factors that have nothing to do with the Corrections and sentencing systems or reforms. They’ve talked, in fact, about the increase in opioid addiction and heroin markets that have sprung up around that. They’ve talked about many other factors. Those who have talked about repeat offenders being responsible for this, and of course repeat offenders are contributor to crime, that’s why we have high revocation rates, but at the same time, it’s really important to note that the number of prison releases last year, 2014, were down 15% from their peak in 2008. It’s not as if the numbers support at all the notion that some kind of big increase in offender releases has any connection whatsoever to do with a rise in the actual crime rate.
Leonard: What we have to do, we within the Criminal Justice System, we have to struggle through all of these issues, whether they be policy, whether they be philosophical, whether they be crime related issues, but this is not something that’s going to go away. Fundamental change within the Criminal Justice System seems to be here, and I’m guessing that it will grow because, again, I’ll go back to veterans courts. I know I’m cherry picking, but you have a lot of people from the military, ex-military, and they end up in the Criminal Justice System. Some end up in prison, and yet within the military community, within the veterans community, they flood that person in terms of mentorship.
It’s just not the Criminal Justice System. I’ve never seen so many mentors come out of the woodwork to help an individual brother or sister in arms when they’ve made a mistake or committed a crime and they’re caught up in the Criminal Justice System. These sort of things seem to be inevitable. I’m not quite sure they’re going to stop. It’s just a matter of providing best practices and guiding them in a way that all people can agree upon.
Adam: I think that’s spot on, Len. Forty years ago, more than forty years ago now, when we started down this prison building path as a nation, we quite frankly didn’t know very much about what works to stop the revolving door. We didn’t have an evidence base of effective practices that would change offender behavior. Now we do. We know that if we use risk/needs assessments, we can figure out what levels to supervise people at and what programs to put them in and match them to appropriate treatments that will tackle their criminal risk factors. We know that if we use swift and certain sanctions, like in the Hawaii Hope program, that we can change their behavior through that kind of strategy as well.
We know that offering rewards for positive progress, not just sanctions when you mess up, can be a powerful motivator change, and many other building blocks of an effective Corrections system. The research base is there. No magic bullets, but when you do the things that the research says work, you can have a significant impact on recidivism, and policy makers are becoming more and more aware of that. That’s why I think you’re right that over time, there may be some political cycles and things that occur that feel like in the short term will be a drag on reform momentum, that this evidence base will continue to build, and as long as there are organizations and effective mechanisms for making sure the policy makers have access to that information, I think we’re going to see this issue continue to move in a smarter and more cost effective ways.
Leonard: We’ve been talking to Adam Gelb, always a fascinating conversation, Director of the Public Safety Performance Project at the Pew Charitable Trust, www.pewtrusts.org/publicsafety. Ladies and gentlemen, this is DC Public Safety. We appreciate your comments. We even appreciate your criticisms, and we want everybody to have themselves a very pleasant day.