Thursday, June 30, 2011

Criminal Justice in the South

Fascinating report out by the Justice Policy Institute on criminal justice reform in southern states. Some of their findings:

The United States currently incarcerates more than 2.3 million people in prisons and jails. U.S. taxpayers spent $74 billion in FY2007 on corrections costs alone.

With states all over the country facing budget crises, a number of states and localities are looking for new and innovative ways to reduce the number of people in prisons and jails while maintaining public safety and cutting spending.

Southern states historically have had some of the highest incarceration rates in the U.S., regularly trumping the national average. Recognizing the significant costs associated with such high incarceration rates, a number of these states have recently implemented innovative strategies for reducing their prison and jail populations and ensuring better outcomes for people who come into contact with the criminal justice system.

These strategies start at the time of arrest, include sentencing reform, and impact who is released from prison on parole and the reentry services they receive upon return to the community. Each of these reforms have either already shown positive results or have significant potential to reduce prison or jail populations, save money and improve public safety.

While a number of challenges still face these states and localities around their criminal justice policies, these reforms indicate a significant step toward more fair and effective policies.

They go on to list major sentencing reform taking place in Arkansas and Mississippi, changes to arrest and pretrial procedures in Tennessee, Louisiana and Florida, release and reentry changes in Missouri, Alabama and Georgia, and complete "justice system overhauls" in Kentucky, Texas and South Carolina.

Scrolling through the report I am somewhat heartened by the changes, until one considers that most of this was financially driven by the recession and doesn't really reflect a change in the politics or ideologies of incarceration and punishment.

Also, many of the alternative programs they mention in the report (such as pretrial diversion and reentry/parole changes) were discussed in terms of budget years 2008-2009. As the report acknowledges, in tough economic times these are the kinds of programs targeted first on the chopping block. Given the massive state budget cutbacks of the past two fiscal years, how many of these alternatives survived is unknown.

Still, by hook or by crook (by budget axe or cudgel), it does seem criminal justice reform is infecting even the deep south states. For that we can all be thankful.

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