What is Justice Reinvestment?

If you Google “Justice Reinvestment” you will find a very jargon-riddled, wordy definition that goes a little something like this:

Justice reinvestment is a data-driven approach to improve public safety, reduce corrections and related criminal justice spending, and reinvest savings in strategies that can decrease crime and strengthen neighborhoods. The purpose of justice reinvestment is to manage and allocate criminal justice populations more cost-effectively, generating savings that can be reinvested in evidence-based strategies that increase public safety while holding offenders accountable. States and localities engaging in justice reinvestment collect and analyze data on drivers of criminal justice populations and costs, identify and implement changes to increase efficiencies, and measure both the fiscal and public safety impacts of those changes.” (United States Bureau of Justice Assistance)

There is, however, a much simpler definition that sums up all of the gobbledy-gook above: Justice reinvestment is taking money from the correctional system and using it to fund community programs that will end the prison pipeline.  Voila!  

The idea is exciting, and its popularity tells us that some folks at the very top recognize the need for a change in the way America incarcerates.  It can’t be pleasant for our politicians to tout the tenets of democracy and freedom while housing the biggest prison population in the world, larger than those of Russia, India, and China combined.  It is also extremely expensive to imprison so many individuals, many of whom are locked up for non-violent reasons such as drug possession or untreated mental health issues.  On average each person in prison costs the government $34,000 per year.

What if these folks were allowed to enter treatment paid for with money that formerly funded correctional activities?  Even taking an upstream approach like providing more after-school programs, job training in top industries, and other meaningful programs that help keep individuals and families stable, would transform communities.  

If all of this sounds too good to be true, keep in mind that the wordy version of the definition focused attention on “Data-Driven” practices.  The clever folks at the United States Bureau of Justice Assistance, Attorney General Eric Holder’s folks, have already done the research and found that this approach is very successful.  The theory of justice reinvestment has been forwarded by the United States Department of Justice through the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, which provides funding for those states that take on this strategy.  The folks in DC from both sides of the proverbial aisle have determined that locking folks up does not make our communities any safer - it just costs the country a whole lot of money.  Now it’s time to change the paradigm in each of the states.

The strategy does have its detractors, however.  Justice reinvestment is a solution initiated at the state level requiring the buy-in of governors and other legislators in order to implement.  In the states that used the justice reinvestment strategy early in its development, there were struggles to have the savings reinvested as the theory dictates.  Once savings were realized, legislators either wanted to divert the recouped funds to shore up sagging budgets in other areas or to pay for more correctional infrastructure, thereby defeating the purpose of the initiative.  The federal government has worked hard to encourage the states to adopt justice reinvestment as prescribed, but balks at dictating to them that the funds be used as the feds wish.  Seventeen states have taken on justice reinvestment initiatives with federal funding.  They are:

Arkansas, Delaware, Georgia, Hawaii, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, West Virginia

That leaves 33 more states to get on board.  In a future piece we will look at the Justice Reinvestment Initiatives in these states and look at ways the community can work to not only get the other states involved, but to get more of the savings from the existing initiatives into meaningful community programs.