"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."
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."