Not long ago, the national philosophy behind criminal-justice policy was to lock offenders away and teach them a lesson. This was popular with politicians who found that it played well before crowds, and it was popular in communities where prisons and jails created jobs. Some folks even seemed to celebrate the idea that prisons were real hellholes.
This philosophy worked great if you did not care about creating better citizens in people who had made mistakes but could be rehabilitated; if you did not want to think about the effect of mingling juveniles with hardened adult criminals; if you did not care about the spiraling cost to support the expansion of incarceration — just a few of many things you could avoid thinking about.
No one reason caused inmate populations to expand but many contributed: declining family structures; more children raised by one biological parent or none; the failure of families to emphasize learning; neighborhoods without jobs; the widespread availability of illegal narcotics; the dependency society mindset in which government is expected to pay everyone’s bills; you can go on and on.
Some insightful people began to understand that criminal justice expenditures could not expand forever. Ohio did some good work in the mid-1990s, but the reform movement really took hold after Texas began to implement community-based alternatives to incarceration about seven years ago.
Nobody has ever accused Texas of being soft on crime. The Texas Public Policy Foundation was a real reform driver, as was the Public Safety Performance Project at the Pew Charitable Trusts.
Today, the evidence points to Georgia as a national leader.
Five years ago, Georgia was on the cusp of a criminal justice meltdown. The state’s adult prison population had doubled over two decades to 56,000 inmates and the incarceration budget had doubled to $1 billion per year. That did not include the costs to administer probation and parole. And it was projected to get worse: The prison system would need to house 60,000 inmates by 2016, costing $264 million for new prison construction. All the annual operational costs were above and beyond the projected capital investment.
Prisons and jails were overcrowded, and budgets were blowing up. It was ugly.
This week, however, encouraging trends were reported at the criminal justice reform council meeting in Atlanta:
• The state has reduced its adult prison population to 52,000 inmates.
• The number of annual new prison commitments is down from 21,600 in 2009 to 18,000 last year.
• Statewide, total jail populations are down from 44,000 four years ago to about 37,000 today.
• Non-violent, low-risk offenders who would have been in prison now have a better chance to succeed in community-based programs.
At the same time, thanks to new juvenile community-based alternative programs, state juvenile courts reduced new youth secure detention commitments by 62 percent between October 2013 and June 2014. More than 1,600 youths were kept out of secure detention.
The sea change that made changes like this possible started with Gov. Nathan Deal in 2011, when his executive order created a criminal justice reform council to differentiate between serious, hardened felons and people who pose little or no risk to public safety. The phrase that you often hear is to create a distinction between people who scare us and people who make us mad. Is a non-violent personal drug addict better off in substance abuse care or bunking with a killer?
When he signed bipartisan criminal justice reform legislation into law in 2012, the governor gave credit to the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, which has supported adult and juvenile justice reform since its earliest days.
“The foundation’s Criminal Justice Initiative pushed the problems to the forefront, proposed practical solutions, brought in leaders from other states to share examples, and created this nonpartisan opportunity,” Deal said.
The encouraging news you have read about here should not be interpreted as more than a very optimistic report about changes that will take years to implement. Indeed, the Council continues to wrestle with how to reintegrate released former offenders back into the community. Putting them away is hard; giving them the best possible chance to succeed once they return home is even more complicated.
That said, there is nothing wrong with pausing to celebrate something that is working.
Klein is editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.