Reforming Mass Incarceration Through Justice Reinvestment

By Monique M. Chiacchia, Full-Time Faculty, Legal Studies Programs 


Although the United States has a criminal justice system that is well respected and more fundamentally fair than many of its international counterparts, there is no denying that our prisons are overpopulated, there are a disproportionate number of minorities imprisoned, and judges have lost discretion in the wake of mandatory sentencing laws for many offenses.  While the United States has only 5% of the world's population, we house 25% of all prisoners (Justice Reinvestment, 2015).  The excessive burden on the prison system has, for years, triggered review and reform efforts to improve it for the future.  These have included a switch from traditional "reactive" policing to a more modern "proactive" value system for law enforcement.  More recently, there has been a push towards adopting "justice reinvestment" in order to curb the tide of mass incarceration throughout the country.

Justice Reinvestment

Our prisons are overpopulated.  This is a sentiment that few would debate, and it is an issue for which there is no quick remedy.  For example, in Alabama, prisons are at 190% capacity-almost twice as crowded as they were intended to be (Canary, 2015).  In order to reduce that to 100 percent capacity, the state would need to spend $840 million to build new prisons-money that the state does not have (Canary, 2015).  This does not include the $186 million it would take to run those new prisons (Canary, 2015).  With prisons so overpopulated, inmates and prison workers are at heightened risk for injury and offenders are not receiving the treatment so many need, including means of integrating back into society upon release and finding and keeping jobs upon which to rebuild their lives (Canary, 2015).  Many states are facing similar crises and have taken various approaches to criminal justice reform, such as removing some felonies from the Habitual Offender Laws, creating juvenile diversion programs, and prioritizing premium prison space for the most violent and dangerous offenders (Canary, 2015).  But the options are limited, funds are near nonexistent, and offenders receive little to no help and are in serious danger of repeat offending (Canary, 2015).

Like community policing, the concept of justice reinvestment is a value system, not a program.   It is a process that as of 2014 has been adopted by legislation in 19 states ("Justice Reinvestment," 2015).  Twenty-seven states have participated in some ways with reform efforts ("Ending Mass Incarceration, n.d.).  The primary goals behind justice reinvestment are to control and reduce the rising costs of running corrections facilities, reduce recidivism, and increase safety for all citizens ("Justice Reinvestment," 2015).  The cost savings realized by curbing corrections expenses are then "reinvested" back into the criminal justice system and community programs to help keep people safe, prevent offender reincarceration, and work with juvenile offenders for accountability and for diversion programs to keep the young out of a life of crime ("Justice Reinvestment," 2015). 

How does it work?  Much of the justice reinvestment approach is tied to modifying current approaches to incarceration as well as mandatory sentencing schemes that call for incarceration for even minor theft and drug offenses and take discretion out of the hands of judges.  Proponents of justice reinvestment stress that the cost savings of not incarcerating those who have not committed major, violent offenses can then be reinvested to treat and rehabilitate such offenders so that they can then go on to job retraining and become productive members of society (Lawrence and Lyons, 2013).  They maintain that some of the saved funds can also be used for supervision and crime prevention (Lawrence and Lyons, 2013). 

Support for justice reinvestment programs is bipartisan in nature, and spans across many governmental factions ("Justice Reinvestment," 2015).  In addition, the data accumulated to date from states using this approach is positive.  For example in Texas, a state known to be very hard on crime, justice reinvestment policies were promulgated in 2007 directed at probation violators.  Instead of sending them back to prison, the policies called for treatment for substance abuse and mental health help (Lawrence and Lyons, 2013).  The Texas Legislature authorized $240 million in funding for treating such offenders and preventing crime rather than the $500 million requested to build a new prison (Lawrence and Lyons, 2013).  The results were that the state saw a savings of $443 million, and through establishing prison residential and outpatient treatment programs and limiting probation length for minor drug and property offences, parole revocations were on the decline, and prison populations dropped so low that one prison actually closed its doors in 2012 (Lawrence and Lyons, 2013).

Similar results have been reported throughout the country.  In 2013, Oregon proposed legislation that was geared at curbing prison growth by 2022 and save taxpayers upwards of $300 million ("Partnership For Safety and Justice," n.d.).  The legislation instituted a grant program to take the money saved from prison growth and reinvest it into programs such as those designed to promote reintegration into society from prison, substance abuse treatment, and mental health services ("Partnership For Safety and Justice," n.d.).  Oregon also called for investment in victim services in order to help victims of crime restore their lives in safety ("Partnership for Safety and Justice," n.d.).  Their approach to funding is dependent upon the amount saved per county by prison population reduction:  "[t]he more people who can be effectively held accountable in the community, the fewer people sent to prison, and the more savings that can be reinvested into crime prevention programs in the counties" ("Partnership For Safety and Justice," n.d.).

Faced with the possibility of a 25% prison population growth by 2022, South Dakota law makers enacted justice reinvestment reform efforts by reserving prison space for violent and career offenders (Lawrence & Lyons, 2013).  They did this by lowering sentences for some nonviolent and minor drug offenses and increasing them for drug trafficking and aggravated felonies (Lawrence & Lyons, 2013).  The projected $200 million saved over ten years through such reform efforts is slotted for reinvestment in substance and mental health intervention initiatives, as well as solutions for making restitution for victims and finds support by many branches of government, including the Attorney General's office and others (Lawrence & Lyons, 2013). 

There is federal support for justice reinvestment as well as the Council of State Governments.  Leading the national effort are the Bureau of Justice Assistance in the Department of Justice and the Public Safety Performance Project of The Pew Charitable Trusts (Lawrence and Lyons, 2013).  Administration of funds for state reinvestment efforts, help analyzing criminal justice data and whether the proposed corrections reform efforts would be cost effective, and technical support and training are provided to 18 states and 17 localities with more seed funding and support on the horizon (Lawrence and Lyons, 2013).  With policies that are results and data oriented, part of the training focuses on the ability of different branches of government to work together and develop strong and effective leadership to "target corrections resources, improve offender accountability and main public safety" (Lawrence & Lyons, 2013).

Many states that have not yet adopted justice reinvestment policies are considering them after learning of the data-driven reform measures that have succeeded in other states.  For example, in Massachusetts there is 2015-2016 Omnibus Legislation sponsored by members of both houses to repeal mandatory minimum drug sentences and return judicial discretion in sentencing for drug charges, thereby reducing the chances of longer prison terms for drug offenses and reducing some low-level felonies (like shoplifting and low level drug crimes) thereby freeing up prison resources for other programs such as extraordinary medical placement, and job retraining aimed at self-sustaining employment (CJCP, 2015).  This reform measure would also reinvest saved funds in the youth by creating programs and jobs to help them learn how to support themselves and stay in school until their education is complete (CJCP, 2015).  With continued federal support and backers such as the American Civil Liberties Union, our country will surely see an increase in the use of such practices in order to end mass incarceration and the many systemic issues associated with an overburdened prison system.   Although there are limitations with all reinvestment initiatives, these policies at least serve as a movement in the right direction toward lowering prison populations, increasing accountability, reinvesting in youth, and teaching people how to live a life without crime.


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