Reinventing the Criminal Justice System-Justice Reinvestment-Urban Institute-DC Public Safety

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Radio Program available at http://media.csosa.gov/podcast/audio/2013/01/reinventing-the-criminal-justice-system-justice-reinvestment-urban-institute-dc-public-safety/

[Audio Begins]

Len Sipes: From the nation’s capital, this is DC Public Safety. I’m your host, Leonard Sipes. Today’s program, ladies and gentlemen, is Reinventing the Criminal Justice System, Justice Reinvestment; I think one of the more important topics that we’re going to be discussing and one of the more complicated topics we are going to be discussing this year. Dr. Nancy La Vigne, Director of the Justice Policy Center for The Urban Institute is our guest today. – www.urban.org. We’ll be making reference to that website throughout the program because, ladies and gentlemen, this is, again, an extraordinarily difficult concept to understand, complicated but unbelievably important to the future of the criminal justice system. I’ll try to summarize it and then turn the entire program over to Nancy. Number one, states and locales all throughout the country are complaining of budget cuts, and it really has impacted the criminal justice system. And I’ll read a passage, a quick passage from a publication, “What can county and city managers do reduce these costs without compromising public safety, they can engage in Justice Reinvestment. Justice Reinvestment can help prioritize local justice spending for those who pose the greatest risk to public safety while also informing which individuals would be better off in the community, where services and treatment are more readily available.” And then bottom line, I’m thinking, about Justice Reinvestment are the savings. If there are savings, a portion of those savings go back to the states and local jurisdictions to even provide more programs. Nancy, am I somewhere in the ballpark of even beginning to describe what Justice Reinvestment is all about?

Nancy La Vigne: Yes, you are, and you did it quite succinctly, I will say. It’s a multi-step process and so it does take some time to explain but perhaps we should start with a little bit of history. You did refer to the fact that the impetus behind a lot of states and localities getting on the Justice Reinvestment bandwagon is because of the budget shortfalls, and that’s definitely accurate, but there were other issues as well. First of all, as I think we all know, a lot of those budget shortfalls are being fed by rising criminal justice costs. They may not be the entire – as a matter of fact they’re a rather small, 8% to 10% of the total state budget in any given state but still we’re talking about hundreds of millions of dollars so with states and localities thinking, “What can we do? How can we save money? How can we deal with these budget shortfalls,” it’s a natural inclination to look at the criminal justice system because those costs continue to rise because the populations have been rising historically. Now you may be aware of recent studies that show that state prison populations are on the decline but actually, as my colleague Jesse Jannetta recently blogged about, that’s driven almost entirely by California.

Len Sipes: By the state of California, that’s right, and those overall declines are not all that dramatic.

Nancy La Vigne: They’re marginal, but states realize that this is an issue and they’ve been grappling with it for a while, and many have tried different efforts to control the growth of the prison population that have been maybe mildly successful but not sustained over time, and arguably it’s because they haven’t engaged in this Justice Reinvestment process which requires a couple of things to be place. First, you need to have all the people in the system, all the key stakeholders at the table and on board. If you only work one end of the system, it’s just going to bulge out somewhere else kind of like squeezing a water balloon so you need everyone at the table. At the state level, it’s critical that you have representation from both sides of the aisle, and you’ve got the support of the Governor and the House leadership, the Senate leadership, minority, majority, as well as the Head of the Department of Corrections, and parole and probation and so forth, and judges, prosecutors, everyone who drives the system. If you don’t have them all on board, it’s not going to work because either changes will be made and they’ll be fought and they won’t get through or they won’t be sustained over time because you don’t have this joint buy-in.

Len Sipes: You’re as good as your weakest link.

Nancy La Vigne: Exactly. Exactly. Some of those weak links are quiet powerful, as you may know.

Len Sipes: Yes! Yes!

Nancy La Vigne: So there’s that. It’s having the right people at the table. And then it’s guiding the decision-making process with hard empirical data, and that data is often supplied by the state or the locality but typically in the Justice Reinvestment model, it’s analyzed by a technical assistance partner, funded by the Bureau of Justice Assistance, U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs —

Len Sipes: Thank you.

Nancy La Vigne: — in partnership with the Pew Center on the states for the state-level initiative, they together have funded this initiative and supported four technical assistance providers, two that work with states, two that work with localities. I can share who those are if you wish.

Len Sipes: 17 states are doing this?

Nancy La Vigne: 17 states right now are engaged in this process. Some states early on have already engaged in the process and declared victory and moved on. A lot of people point to Texas as an example of that. They were the earliest adopter I can think of, and they were looking towards the future and had planned to spend billions of dollars on new prison construction —

Len Sipes: And did not.

Nancy La Vigne: — and did not. They chose not to.

Len Sipes: And the crime rates have basically gone down in Texas.

Nancy La Vigne: And they took some of the money they would have spent on prisons and funded treatment beds.

Len Sipes: And that is the heart and soul of Justice Reinvestment, is it not? – Using data, doing things differently. If there’s cost-savings, those cost-savings are shared with the states and localities, and they buy more treatment options for people in the criminal option system.

Nancy La Vigne: That’s the way it’s been playing out, not only treatment options or programming. Sometimes it’s to shore up supervision. In some states they’ve identified that the wrong people are being supervised and some people are not being supervised at all so, you know, folks who are maxing out and are exiting after often serving time for pretty serious crimes without any supervision, and of course with supervision comes support. It’s not just about surveillance; it’s about support and providing the necessary programs and services, so shifting who gets supervised, how long they get supervised. You know, some low-level offenders perhaps shouldn’t be supervised at all or certainly shouldn’t be supervised for the length of time that they are. That can save money. But also with those savings, putting it into implementation of graduated sanctions to prevent revocations and other best practices that are supported by evidence.

Len Sipes: One other person – I won’t name this person – this is what he told me, not knowing it, but he said it with all the conviction in the world, that every governor in every state in the United States has had a discussion with his or her Correctional Administrator basically saying that costs have to be reduced. That was his proposition.

Nancy La Vigne: So do you know what I find really frustrating about that?

Len Sipes: Please.

Nancy La Vigne: The assumption that the head of the DOC has control over that population. I mean yes, they are housed within his or her domain or control but that suggests that they’re the ones that drive the growth in the population, and what we’ve learned from the experiences in the states is that’s not really the case.

Len Sipes: True.

Nancy La Vigne: Revocations, often technical revocations, are driving that growth.

Len Sipes: That’s why everybody’s got to be on board.

Nancy La Vigne: Sentencing decisions, sentencing low-level drug offenders, low-level property offenders to increasingly lengthy terms behind bars – that’s not under the control of the head of the DoC. That’s a decision that prosecutors and judges make.

Len Sipes: But after 42 years in the criminal justice system, we are stodgy. We are bureaucrats. We are round-peg in a round-hole kind of people. We’re not used to people coming along and saying, “We’re going to basically readjust/reinvent/change the way that you conduct business.” The criminal justice system, when I joined when I was 18 as a cadet for the Maryland State Police, is basically 90% of the criminal justice system I see as I’m looking at the end of my career.

Nancy La Vigne: Yeah, and I agree with that. You are stodgy. However – however – when you look at this process, how it plays out in action, it’s a wonder to witness. The Urban Institute is in a role as the oversight coordination and assessment entity for this project so we get to kind of go to all the states and localities and observe how this works, so the Counsel of State Governments, for example, they’ve been leading the charge on the state side. They literally embed people in a state and develop the relationships and share the data and engage in intensive policy conversations and work a tremendous amount of time behind the scenes, getting people on board, educating people, identifying folks that may be reticent to get on board, and finding ways to persuade them that it’s not just in their best interests but in the best interests of the system. They are that neutral outside entity that can speak with authority based on extensive experience working in many states, and presenting the data that can just kind of dispel a lot of the anecdotes that you hear that nay-sayers often argue based on stories rather than fact. They can demonstrate how it is a system-wide problem not just owned by one player, and that can really nudge some stodgy people into action.

Len Sipes: Yeah. Yeah. Let’s give some examples because I’m afraid some of our listeners possibly could be confused with the process. We are talking about in essence focusing our resources on those people who pose the greatest risk to public safety and doing “something else” with those people who do not necessarily pose a great risk to public safety.

Nancy La Vigne: Well, that is one of the many interventions that states have chosen to implement. Really, the interventions should be guided by the identified drivers of population growth so in some states it may be one driver and in some it might be another, and across the 17 states, the most common drivers are revocations, both probation and parole revocations, and a high, high percentage of them being technical.

Len Sipes: In your report, you cited one state with 50% as having histories of parole and probation revocations coming in through their prison system. I spent 14 years with the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. At one point for us it was 70%.

Nancy La Vigne: 70%.

Len Sipes: 70%, yes it was.

Nancy La Vigne: Well, I would call that low-hanging fruit. There’s a lot that could be done there. So certainly with the revocation issue, the response to that is to look at what sanctions are in place, do people need to be returned to prison for technical violations, can you create graduated sanctions, can you create incentives for not engaging in technical violations, can you return people for shorter periods of time or return them to local jails rather than to state facilities. All of that saves a ton of money.

Len Sipes: And Project Hope basically said those short, meaningful interventions of a day or two days or three days were effective enough to dramatically reduce recidivism, dramatically reduce technical violations. It was wonderful across the board. So Project Hope is the epitome of an example as to the effectiveness of that approach.

Nancy La Vigne: That’s exactly right, and several of the states who are grappling with high revocation rates did choose to implementation Hope models or Hope-like models. That’s exactly right. But then there’s other drivers, and I mentioned before, sentencing practices and the incarceration of low-level offenders. In Louisiana, for example, non-violent, non-sex offenses represented over 60% of prison admissions so, you know, what can we do with that population? Some may need to go, some may could be diverted, and also what’s stunning to me is that there’s also been a trend in many states of increased lengths of stay for these low-level, non-violent, property and drug offenders So that’s another place where you could look to see making changes. Sentencing reform is tremendously challenging.

Len Sipes: It’s a huge issue.

Nancy La Vigne: It’s very challenging, so most states don’t choose to go the sentencing reform route. They usually look at some kind of back-end way to – although some do pass statutes to change the thresholds by which people should be —

Len Sipes: The research on specialty courts has been very encouraging, diverting people out of the prosecution prison route and going into the specialty courts, and specialty courts have had good returns basically in terms of recidivism and cost-savings.

Nancy La Vigne: Um-hum, uum-hum. It’s true, and then another common driver we observed across states is the issue of delays in parole processing or reductions in the parole grant rate, and these too are relatively simple changes, figuring out what’s slowing things down and how can you speed them up, or how can you change or guide parole boards in a way that they’re incentivized to make decisions to grant parole, perhaps supported by evidence, and the most obvious evidence would be a risk assessment that gives them more comfort in knowing who they should release. In other cases, the parole grants get stalled because people don’t have a home plan. Well, that is an issue of resources often behind bars. If you don’t have a case manager that can help line up a home plan then no one gets released, and then you have this backlog which is really unnecessary.

Len Sipes: And the interesting data in terms of parole is that those paroled have consistently much less of a rate of recidivism than those not paroled, so fewer people coming back to prison, once again, as long as they are released with conditions and those conditions are enforceable.

Nancy La Vigne: Exactly.

Len Sipes: So what else?

Nancy La Vigne: What else?

Len Sipes: It’s very complicated.

Nancy La Vigne: Yes. Well, so what’s complicated about it is how long it takes to explain why it’s called Justice Reinvestment because up till now what we’ve discussed is data-driven, collaborative approaches to reducing the prison population and saving money through identifying the drivers and developing responses to the drivers. Where does this word “reinvestment” come in?

Len Sipes: Yes.

Nancy La Vigne: That comes in at the very, very end with the anticipated savings associated with making all these changes. Now this is very complicated because the savings might not be hard cold cash that you have in your hands and you can put elsewhere, as a matter of fact it’s rarely that. A lot of the savings are projected savings that aren’t realized until several years into the future however the process still encourages states to think about upfront reinvestment. So in looking at prison projections had they done nothing and then the projections associated with the changes that they plan to make, they can anticipate that, you know, five years down the road they’re going to save however many millions of dollars – why not reinvest some of that upfront into programs, supervision, services that help support the entire system and reduce recidivism?

Len Sipes: So the reductions in terms of the cost outlays to the criminal justice system are actually reinvested to make the system even better, so it’s a win-win situation across the board.

Nancy La Vigne: Um-hum.

Len Sipes: All right. Let me reintroduce you, and ladies and gentlemen, we’re a little bit more than halfway through the program. We’re talking about reinventing the criminal justice system – that’s my title – Justice Reinvestment, Nancy La Vigne, Director of the Justice Policy Center, Urban Institute, www.urban.org – www.urban.org. Again, we reemphasize that this is a joint project of the Bureau of Justice Assistance, the Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice, the Pew Center on the states and the – I’m sorry, the Centers for State Government, correct?

Nancy La Vigne: The Counsel of State Governments.

Len Sipes: The Counsel of State Governments, I’m sorry, my apologies, but this is a massive undertaking on the part of 17 states, a lot of different jurisdictions, with the understanding that people have been talking about reinventing the criminal justice system, doing “something different” with the criminal justice system for a multiple of reasons but budget, in my opinion, seems to be the principle driver behind all of this. People are more than welcome to disagree with my assessment but I do think it’s budget that’s pushing an awful lot of this, and this is exciting stuff because what it does is bring an awful lot of people in one room, data-driven, taking a look at an awful lot of data and saying, “What can we do to reduce the amount of people flowing through the criminal justice system without having an adverse impact on public safety and saving money and taking those savings and reinvesting those savings in terms of either more prosecutors, more parole and probation agents, more programs, more resources for the criminal justice system so they can do a better job to begin with so it can be data-driven in the future so we can continue this philosophy down the road, right?

Nancy La Vigne: That’s right – data-driven and evidence-based.

Len Sipes: Right.

Nancy La Vigne: Before we continue, I do want to acknowledge all of our partners in this initiative.

Len Sipes: Please. Please. Please.

Nancy La Vigne: We mentioned, of course, the Bureau of Office Assistance and the Pew Center on the States are the funding partners. The Counsel of State Governments and the Vera Institute of Justice have both been working with states, and the way that works is that the Counsel of State of Governments helps identify the drivers and the policy options, and gets states to the point where they pass legislation, and then Vera comes in and helps implement. And then at the local level, it’s the Center for Effective Public Policy and the Crime and Justice Institute that are working with counties across the country.

Len Sipes: Oh, lots of different people, lots of jurisdictions involved in this.

Nancy La Vigne: Yeah, a lot of players, a lot of very, very seasoned criminal justice professionals, often former practitioners and/or data analysts that come into states and localities and, as I said before, really embed themselves in the system, develop the relationships and the trust, and really make things happen.

Len Sipes: This is, in my mind, the most significant story of the criminal justice system as we move into the 21st century and yet it gets zero coverage. There’s nobody from the Boston Globe, there’s nobody from the New York Times, there’s nobody from the Washington Post, there’s nobody looking at this systematically, and yet this, in my mind, is a fundamental change in terms of how we within the criminal justice system operate. Why is that? Is it just a bunch of policy wonks sitting with a bunch of budget-cutters and saying, “Hey, what’s the best way we that can rearrange the deck chairs?” or is this really a substantive, hard-nosed examination of the fact that we can do this better without imposing so much of a fiscal burden on the states and counties and cities?

Nancy La Vigne: It’s definitely the latter because it’s not just budget-cutters and policy wonks. It’s all the key players in the system that have a shared interest in doing things differently and getting more bang for their buck. I mean, the return on investment has been really poor. If you look at the increased expenditures on corrections across the country —

Len Sipes: Massive.

Nancy La Vigne: — massive, with no real discernible change in the recidivism rate.

Len Sipes: But isn’t it interesting of how you take a look at conservative politicians – not to touch upon politics in any way, shape, or form – but conservative politicians are demanding that the criminal justice system prove its cost effectiveness, demanding that we get a bigger bang for our criminal justice dollar. I mean, I find that to be interesting.

Nancy La Vigne: This is why it’s been so popular an initiative, it’s because it garners support on both sides of the aisle. The left has always been more sympathetic to rehabilitation spending and perhaps diverting people from prison. The right has observed that this is not just a wise use of taxpayer dollars, and they do, they want to see a better return on the investment and that’s what we’re seeing. You know, we talked at the end of the first segment about the projected savings and how they get reinvested. Across the 17 states that are currently engaged in justice reinvestment, they’re projecting between 9 and 438 million dollars in savings.

Len Sipes: That’s amazing. Now is that per state or is that total?

Nancy La Vigne: An average of $163 million per state.

Len Sipes: An average of $163 million cost savings per state.

Nancy La Vigne: Yes. Um-hum. Yeah. It’s huge!

Len Sipes: Who’s getting the Nobel Prize for this?

Nancy La Vigne: I’d love to see it. Well, we have to see those savings, realized, right?

Len Sipes: Of course. Of course.

Nancy La Vigne: A lot of these are projections and we hope they’re accurate but even if they’re off by 50%, that’s still a tremendous savings. Across all the states, in five years the projected savings is $2.12 billion.

Len Sipes: $2.12 billion.

Nancy La Vigne: And that speaks volumes, I think.

Len Sipes: Well, it does speak volumes if we can hold down the rate of recidivism, if we can ensure public safety, if we focus on those people who pose a clear and present danger to our well-being.

Nancy La Vigne: Well, the beauty of this model is that a lot of the policy responses to the drivers of growth embody those principles. Every single state that engages in Justice Reinvestment is refining their risk assessment tools and validating them, and using them to guide decisions on diversion, on supervision, on everything including on needs and who should great treatment, and everything in between; and that is evidence-based, and we know that that’s tied to better outcomes in terms of recidivism rates.

Len Sipes: In essence what we’re saying is that there’s a certain portion of the population that comes into the criminal justice system, again, recognizing there’s been an almost continuous 20-year decline in crime per the National Crime Survey in crimes reported to law enforcement agencies and through the FBI, there is still a certain portion of the population coming to the criminal justice system that is better served from a public safety point of view and from a recidivism point of view not to process them in the way that we did ten years ago.

Nancy La Vigne: Um-hum. I think that’s right.

Len Sipes: And that’s taking risks, and that’s why a lot of the people at the local level, at the country level, are saying, “Well, why should we take those risks? Those risks have a way of blowing up in our face.” I think that would be the greatest point of reluctance. Why change it? Why take that risk? Why not simply incarcerate that person for a year or six months instead of putting that person into drug court?

Nancy La Vigne: Well, because it’s just not sustainable, that’s why. There’s just not enough room. There’s not enough money to build more prisons and so if you don’t make these hard decisions now, essentially you’re not making strategic decisions about how to use that space most wisely. You want to free up that space for folks who are really a danger to society but if you don’t make hard decisions about who needs to be in and who shouldn’t be in, those decisions should be backed up by risk assessment tools, then you’re actually engaging in really bad practice.

Len Sipes: And isn’t California the poster child for this whole movement where the courts have ordered the release of tens of thousands of offenders from their prison system in California because of the fact that they could not fund properly their health care system? – And they’ve released massive numbers of offenders, and that’s what we’re trying to avoid.

Nancy La Vigne: Right. Exactly. When you said “poster child” I paused for a section. “No, no, don’t hold up California as the example of Justice Reinvestment!”

Len Sipes: No, no, no, I’m not. I’m not.

Nancy La Vigne: No, this is what could happen to you if you don’t engage, yes. Right. Absolutely.

Len Sipes: If you don’t. Right. Right. Right. There are consequences for not managing your population better. There are consequences for not managing your dollars better.

Nancy La Vigne: Exactly.

Len Sipes: And states, I mean, and one state that you looked at in terms of one of our reports, 12% of their overall budget was the state correctional system. That’s astounding!

Nancy La Vigne: That’s right, I think that was Oregon.

Len Sipes: That’s astounding, that 12% of the budget is Corrections. It raised from I think 4% to 12% in terms of the various states but you’re talking about billions of billions of dollars, and if you can divert individuals from coming back into the criminal justice system, you are saving literally billions dollars in terms of future prison costs, building and operating those prisons. That doesn’t have to happen if you manage your population carefully.

Nancy La Vigne: Couldn’t have said it better myself.

Len Sipes: Okay, but we can, through a data-driven process, assure people that this is not going to have an adverse impact on their public safety.

Nancy La Vigne: Again, states, localities, are using risk-assessment tools – some, not all. The ones they are using are not always validated which means they’re not always accurate. By using these tools, and using them in a way that can guide decision-making, I think that they should have confidence. I have confidence that this is no threat to public safety, in fact it’ a wiser and more efficient use of scarce criminal justice resources.

Len Sipes: Right, and the alternative is billions, billions, billions more or the alternative is what’s happening in California with tens of thousands of offenders court-ordered release so if we don’t manage our resources carefully, if we don’t make data-driven decisions, evidence-based decision, we’re not serving the public.

Nancy La Vigne: That’s right, and getting back to the concept of reinvestment, the ways in which states and localities are looking to reinvest a fraction of the savings is in evidence-based programs that are designed to reduce recidivism so you really are getting at recidivism reduction in two ways. You’re getting at it through better use of risk and needs assessments and you’re getting at it through enhanced programs to help people succeed on the outside.

Len Sipes: Um-hum, and that goes all the way from who do you prosecute to what programs do you provide at the end of it because the criminal justice system has done basically a terrible job in the opinion of many in terms of I think, what, 10%, 12% of people get substance abuse treatment while in prison. The numbers for mental health treatment are even smaller. The percentage getting mental health and substance abuse treatment on community supervision is also small, and that’s come back to bite us.

Nancy La Vigne: Yeah.

Len Sipes: To a certain degree, that’s not cost-effective.

Nancy La Vigne: Agreed.

Len Sipes: And the numbers need to drive that in terms of that larger policy discussion with hard-bitten criminal justice people like myself.

Nancy La Vigne: That’s right. We’ve got to get you out of your stodgy ways, Len.

Len Sipes: I would love to do a bit of the fly-on-the-wall for so many of those meetings where people are saying, “Hey, if we don’t do this, we just have the courts release lots of people, and we don’t have the money to continue doing what we’re doing.”

Nancy La Vigne: Right.

Len Sipes: Yeah, it’s a fascinating thing. I really applaud Urban, I really applaud all the partners, and I applaud the Department of Justice of really trying to take a really unique and different approach, and this is why I called the program Reinventing the Criminal Justice System through Justice-Free Investment. Ladies and gentlemen, this is DC Public Safety. Your guest today has been Nancy La Vigne, Director of the Justice Policy Center of the Urban Institute, www.urban.org – www.urban.org. And we thank everybody for their time and efforts in terms of all the input that you provide for the radio shows here at DC Public Safety. We appreciate your calls. We appreciate your letters. We appreciate your emails, and we want everybody to have themselves a very, very pleasant day.

[Audio Ends]

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  1. Hello, I was just seeing if you have an email on upcoming updates that i can sign up to to receive the latest news and updates. Thank You.

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