Is This the End of the War on Crime? | The Nation


Is This the End of the War on Crime?

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"Necessity," says Lorenzo Jones, executive director of the Connecticut-based A Better Way Foundation, "is the mother of invention." Jones, who has spent his adult life swimming against monster currents in his efforts to reform the country's criminal justice system, pauses to chuckle deeply at his own cliché. When it comes to drug policy, he continues, think of the present moment "as moving from a war economy to a postwar economy."

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Sasha Abramsky
Sasha Abramsky, who writes regularly for The Nation, is the author of several books, including Inside Obama’s...

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For decades, progressive policy analysts and criminal justice reformers such as Jones have argued that state and federal antidrug and, more generally, "tough on crime" incarceration strategies were counterproductive: that they were dramatically reshaping American society, at a staggering fiscal and moral cost, and they weren't succeeding. Drug use remained commonplace, and high recidivism numbers for paroled prisoners suggested that prisons weren't remolding criminals into model citizens. Far better, they argued, to keep prisons as a last resort for the truly hardened, violent criminals and to invest more resources in less expensive, and more effective, alternatives to incarceration.

True, crime rates have fallen dramatically since the early 1990s, in part because of those higher incarceration rates. But most experts believe they fell in larger part because of demographic shifts, changes in policing practices and an easing of the crack epidemic. The drop-off in crime has, in turn, finally allowed a public slightly less scared of crime to be slightly more willing to look for nuance rather than sound bites when it comes to policy. It has created what Bart Lubow, a juvenile justice advocate with the Annie E. Casey Foundation, terms an "ideological space" for discussions of reform. "The overall context regarding crime policy," he says, "is much less hysterical than it was through most of the 1990s."

Faced with a growing body of evidence that carefully tailored rehabilitation models can reduce recidivism or drug use better than jails and prisons, and with a burgeoning crisis in local and state government finances, politicians and voters alike are turning their backs on basic tough-on-crime staples. Instead, they are looking for inspiration to programs such as the HOPE Project in Hawaii, the High Point project in North Carolina and an experiment in Multnomah County (home to Portland, Oregon) to divert low-end probation and parole violators to nonincarcerative settings. All these model programs view jail and prison sentences as a last option rather than a default, and swift responses to violations are considered more important than harsh ones. For reformers, it is a rare breath of fresh air.

"I think the criminal justice system is more under the microscope because of the fiscal situation," explains Mike Thompson, director of the New York–based Council of State Government's Justice Center. "Every state's facing fiscal problems, with the exception of North Dakota, and when you look at items where expenditures have risen in the last twenty years, corrections jumps out at you."

Around the country, legislators are essentially asking how they can get more bang for the bucks they spend fighting crime, drug use, mental illness and so on. And they're willing to consult reformers they would have shunned in the recent past as irredeemably "soft" on crime. "Nobody can sit here and say things are fine," argues Jones. "Something has to give. Now we can sit at the table with people we couldn't previously work with and say, 'What are you willing to give?' We are literally writing this narrative as we go."

In Texas a $600 million prison-expansion plan was shelved in 2007 in favor of a $241 million plan expanding community-based drug and alcohol treatment services, after researchers convinced legislators that the latter would lower crime rates more than expanding the state's penal infrastructure. As a result, the notoriously prison-tough Lone Star State, whose leaders used to boast about its extraordinarily high incarceration rate, is implementing some of the country's most innovative reforms, creating a network of in-prison and post-prison residential drug treatment and DWI centers, mental health facilities, halfway houses for inmates being released onto parole, and nonjail residential settings for low-end parole violators. In 2009 the state's prison population declined, perhaps signaling the start of a reversal of nearly four decades of expansion, which saw the Lone Star State's prison numbers grow from just shy of 16,000 in 1972 to more than 170,000 in 2008. Texas joined twenty-five other states that saw reductions in the size of their inmate population last year.

In Kansas legislators approved a large investment in drug treatment programs and services for parolees designed to stop so many offenders from simply cycling back into prison after their release. The result was a drop in Kansas's prison population significant enough to allow the state to close several facilities.

Michigan recently reformed its prisoner-release process to allow for shorter sentences, winning accolades from the ACLU in the process. The state closed eight prisons as a result and invested some of the $250 million savings expected to be generated over a five-year period in an expanded network of mental health and job training services, as well as drug treatment programs.

All told, ten states have embraced "justice reinvestment" strategies such as this, reducing prison spending, investing a portion of the savings in more effective anticrime infrastructure and using the remainder of the savings to plug gaps elsewhere in their budgets. As this model spreads, says Thompson optimistically, we'll get more results-oriented policy-making than we've had in the past. "These are bipartisan, data-driven approaches: figure out what's driving the [prison population] growth and what can be done differently."

Even states that haven't formally adopted such a reinvestment strategy are, of necessity, being pushed in this direction. In California, home to the country's largest state prison population as well as the country's most dysfunctional state budget process, the combination of federal injunctions against overcrowding and the worst fiscal crunch since the Great Depression has brought the race to incarcerate of the past quarter-century to an end. Over the next several years, to the dismay of politicians who have built careers on being tough on crime, the prison population, which stands at around 170,000, will be reduced by several tens of thousands, with more emphasis on parole, probation and local drug treatment.

New Mexico recently enacted a law banning employers from asking job applicants if they have a felony record. An increasing number of states, including conservative bastions like Alabama and Louisiana, are restructuring their juvenile justice systems to move away from incarceration. Drug and mental health courts are channeling more offenders into structured treatment. And many states are rolling back their most restrictive truth-in-sentencing provisions, allowing low-level offenders to return to their communities after serving only a small percentage of their sentences behind bars.

Some states and localities are also starting to invest in restorative justice models, putting offenders to work to repair the damage they caused the community rather than simply warehousing them in prisons.

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