With several high-profile deaths of civilians at the hands of police in 2020 alone, policymakers throughout the country face growing public pressure to reconsider how money is allocated between law enforcement and other public services. For leaders in dozens of states, the discussions about priorities, tradeoffs, and what works are reminiscent of the debates in recent years over another critical component of the criminal justice system: changes to incarceration policies.
Since 2007, more than 30 states have undertaken data-driven, evidence-backed reforms to their criminal justice systems that sought to reduce correctional populations, capture savings, and shift money into public safety strategies that offer better returns on investment. That work continues as more states enact reforms intended to improve outcomes for individuals, communities, and taxpayers.
Through its justice policy work dating back nearly two decades, The Pew Charitable Trusts has identified key actions for policymakers to take to develop effective reforms that produce and protect public safety. They should:
Changing longstanding policies and practices, including reconsidering budget allocations once considered sacrosanct, requires political will. When Georgia launched its criminal justice reform process in 2011, Governor Nathan Deal (R) and other leaders made an explicit commitment to curb rising prison populations and correctional spending and deliver better outcomes. Champions of change overcame the wariness of some system actors to pass significant legislative packages over several years that addressed many aspects of the system, including adult corrections, juvenile justice, and misdemeanor bail.
Following reforms in 2012, Georgia has reduced its prison population to the lowest point since 2002 and seen a modest reduction in the substantial racial disparities behind bars. Although the process has faced obstacles and setbacks, stakeholders demonstrated that sustained commitment to data-driven reform can bear fruit in multiple policy areas over several years.
States undertaking well-informed justice reform start from a foundation of good data about core population and cost drivers of their systems, and selectively focus their efforts. The ability to empirically diagnose points of dysfunction lets reformers craft responsive policies.
For example, South Dakota’s justice reform work group found that 80% of 2012 prison admissions were for nonviolent offenses, often drug use and possession. Lawmakers reclassified these drug offenses to the lowest felony level, with the presumption of probation as punishment as a first step toward tackling high rates of imprisonment for nonviolent offenses.
Reforms should not create unfunded mandates by removing money from an agency without changing responsibilities. Effective changes have specified where corrections departments would be expected to do less, rather than risk poorer performance by reducing funding with no altering of duties.
States began by looking at bread-and-butter agency activities and agreeing on better approaches, generally by shortening lengthy prison terms for specified offenses, reducing community supervision revocations, and making greater use of alternatives to incarceration to reduce prison admissions. The more states build out community-based alternative treatments for mental health and substance use disorders, for instance, the less they rely on correctional agencies to deliver those services.
When South Dakota lawmakers reduced the use of prison for drug offenses, for example, they effectively directed the corrections department to hold fewer people with substance use disorders.
In 2003, the Washington State Institute for Public Policy, a nonpartisan public research center, found that adding prison beds would produce negligible public safety returns for the state, and that money would go further if spent on research-based, well-implemented rehabilitation and prevention programs.
In many instances, however, states must lay substantial groundwork to build these services. Before its 2012 justice reform process, West Virginia sought community-based treatment providers for substance use disorders, but the solicitation received no responses. During the reform process, policymakers focused on designing a funding model that responded to providers’ needs and successfully drew bids for contracts.
In the years since, West Virginia has built critical infrastructure and invested millions of dollars in community-based treatment. Other states, such as Utah and Kansas, gave juvenile justice reforms a running start by investing and reallocating money for community-based services at the outset—before the reforms had time to yield financial savings available for reinvestment.
Explicit statutory language that protects reinvestment and ensures that dollars are routed to community-based programming helps cement reforms. As part of its juvenile reform package in 2016, Kansas created the Evidence-Based Programs Fund, which mandated that all savings associated with reforms resulting from the legislation go to nonresidential services and supports. Louisiana mandated in its 2017 reform legislation that 70% of savings go to certain reinvestment priorities, specifying allocation among state agencies and community-based grant programs.
Finally, as policymakers consider realigning justice priorities, strong oversight of implementation is crucial. This means tracking performance measures over time to determine whether policy and practice changes are achieving their goals.
Oversight bodies should include government officials and nongovernment stakeholders who can offer critical perspectives and share lived experiences. At their best, oversight bodies serve as credible sources of information to lawmakers and the public.
Utah’s Council on Criminal and Juvenile Justice (CCJJ), created by the Legislature in 1983 and tasked with overseeing the performance of the state’s 2015 and 2017 reforms, presents data findings and identifies emerging challenges for lawmakers annually in reports and committee hearings. CCJJ members led a 2019 initiative focused on community supervision as part of a push to address Utah’s high rate of returns to prison from parole.
The current political moment has created new opportunities for real change in how government budgets reflect civic priorities for protecting public safety. States’ robust reform work in recent years offers critical insights that can help ensure that reforms are comprehensive, enforceable, and sustainable. The success of state criminal justice reforms underscores the importance of data-driven policy development, strategic direction of budgetary resources, and oversight to strengthen new approaches.
Jake Horowitz is a director and Elizabeth Compa is an officer with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ public safety performance project.