Trust Magazine

A Boost for Public Safety

How Pew’s public safety performance project has helped propel reforms in the corrections field

Patrick Hendry Unsplash

Louisiana once had the highest levels of incarcerated individuals confined within a prison or jail in the U.S., the country with the highest levels of incarceration in the world. Then, in 2016, Governor John Bel Edwards and state legislative and judicial branch leaders invited Pew to support a task force that would build consensus on a path to better public safety with lower incarceration levels. In 2017, the state passed and signed 10 laws that were projected to reduce the prison population by 10% over 10 years. By the end of 2018, Louisiana had reduced its prison population by 9% and its probation and parole population by 12% and had shifted $30 million into a continuum of community-based services that promise a better return on the state’s investment in public safety. 

A recent evaluation—in which Pew hired external experts to examine its work and highlight successes and failures—found that reforms like these had helped propel the corrections field forward over the past 15 years. This evaluation reviewed Pew’s public safety performance project (PSPP), which advances policies to protect public safety, ensure accountability, and control costs in both adult and juvenile sentencing and corrections. It found that PSPP and its partners had made decisive contributions to reform juvenile and criminal justice systems in states through sound data and analysis, effective stakeholder engagement, and customized state technical assistance. In addition, this initiative effectively partnered with the federal government to scale state efforts and released research and publications that contributed to changes in the national conversation on justice issues.

History of Pew’s public safety performance project

When PSPP launched in 2005, challenges in the corrections field were multiplying, and many state budgets were at a breaking point. The number of adults in state prisons had tripled since the early 1980s, and annual state spending on corrections had increased to $55 billion over the same time frame. States were emerging from a major fiscal downturn that had brought severe spending cuts and were open to policies and programs other than incarceration that research showed could achieve a better return on public safety investments. 

PSPP’s approach involved core strategies that included reframing the criminal justice debate to move away from polarizing rhetoric (e.g., “tough” versus “soft” on crime) and toward alternatives grounded in data on fiscal discipline, public safety, and return on state investments in public safety. It also involved engaging and educating policymakers through partnerships with leading public-sector organizations; building and mobilizing support among key opinion influencers including policymakers, business leaders, and survivors of crime; and providing technical assistance to state-level working groups to develop recommendations for criminal justice reforms and help states adopt them. Technical assistance came mainly from Pew and two partners: the Council of State Governments Justice Center and the Crime and Justice Institute.

In the 15 years that Pew has engaged in justice reform work, public attention and support for these issues has grown significantly

Pew’s experiences working with states on criminal justice reform paved the way for its 2012 decision to expand efforts into the juvenile justice system, which faced similar challenges of high costs and poor results. Pew and its partners also engaged at the federal level to support funding and administration through the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, a public-private partnership with the U.S. Department of Justice to improve public safety through data analysis, stakeholder engagement, and policy development. In 2017, Pew began winding down its state work on adult prisons, exiting that work in March 2020.

It was then that Pew’s evaluation and program learning team commissioned an independent review of PSPP to provide a fuller understanding of its accomplishments and related lessons to inform the initiative’s ongoing work and to strengthen future efforts aiming to influence public debate and change policy.

Key achievements

The review found several key achievements, including:

  • Thirty-six states adopted policies and practices that reformed their adult sentencing and corrections systems (29 states enacted comprehensive reform), and eight states adopted reforms of their juvenile justice systems.
  • PSPP provided a marked return on investment: $90 million in Pew funding along with $132 million in federal funds led to reforms that states projected will yield savings of more than $300 million from juvenile systems and at least $2.1 billion from adult prisons. Major savings came from the closing of 40 adult and eight juvenile correctional facilities across states in which the project worked.
  • States reinvested 32% of savings from reforms into evidence-based practices to reduce recidivism.

Contributions to state successes

The evaluation found that the support of Pew and its partners was key in helping to secure adult and juvenile justice reforms and contributed to achieving the project’s overall results.

A major driver of success was a process of engaging and building trust with key constituencies via working groups. These groups were formed in each state at the invitation of the governor, chief justice, and legislative leaders and included representatives from the executive, judicial, and legislative branches of government, along with members from other professional and constituent groups (e.g., prosecution and defense attorneys, victims’ rights groups, mental health professionals). They acted as deliberative bodies and became champions of reform. The working groups were charged with making recommendations on justice reform to their state leaders, including legislators, and needed to coalesce around a set of priorities, often within a tight six-month time frame.

States reinvested 32% of savings from reforms into evidence-based practices to reduce recidivism

The project’s emphasis on using state-specific data to identify problems and solutions and its nonpartisan and research-based process were cornerstones in winning over skeptics and building support for justice reform. Analyses of state data revealed what was driving incarceration rates in particular states, provided insights from each state’s corrections system, offered stakeholders a rationale for change, and suggested a roadmap to follow.

The evaluation also found that PSPP’s federal partnership helped to expand and deepen state-based efforts, specifically via the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, which has invested more than $130 million in support to states pursuing reforms informed by data about their particular circumstances. 

Shifting the national dialogue

From the outset, Pew recognized that its criminal justice reform work would benefit from enlisting bipartisan support on a national scale. A core effort of PSPP was to produce and disseminate research challenging the notion that locking more people up for longer periods increased public safety. Project research documented the high social and economic costs of incarceration and contrasted them with the relatively poor returns on investment for states in terms of public safety, through dozens of studies and hundreds of related fact sheets, issue briefs, videos, and opinion pieces.

In addition, PSPP worked with stakeholders across the political spectrum, including traditionally conservative and liberal groups, to help make a stronger and more politically viable case for reforms. This coalition included several right-of-center organizations that applied conservative principles (such as limited government, fiscal restraint, and the importance of family) to question the growth and overreach of the American corrections system. Allies had different messages, but were enlisted to participate in the larger policy change effort in various ways, including analyzing data, identifying promising policies, engaging and educating their constituents, and advocating for reforms.

36 states adopted policies and practices that reformed their adult sentencing and corrections systems, and eight states adopted juvenile reforms

The evaluation found that Pew had a decisive influence on the national dialogue. When Pew entered the field, research that targeted educated lay audiences and policymakers was not widely available, and resistance to reforms—from both sides of the aisle—was the norm. In the years that Pew has engaged in justice reform work, public attention and support for these issues has grown significantly; the evaluation found that PSPP contributed to this shift. An example is the influence of Pew’s report “One in 100: Behind Bars in America,” which interviewees described as a “game changer” in bringing the need for justice reform to the political forefront nationally. In addition, PSPP’s partnerships with key influencers—including conservatives, business leaders, and crime survivors—helped build a network of supporters whose opinions are sought out by legislators and executive branch officials.

The road ahead

Although the evaluation was quite positive, it also identified some challenges. For instance, it noted the importance of deeply engaging with staff at state justice agencies when developing reforms, because ongoing success depends on their day-to-day work. It also suggested enhancing some supports to help ensure that policy changes are implemented effectively, such as preparing oversight bodies to respond to criticism during the initial implementation period, before data on reforms is fully available. When Pew began PSPP in 2005, it saw the potential for the organization’s research-based state policy work to sidestep ideological battles in the criminal justice debate and help people find common ground. The evaluation found a significant return on Pew’s investment by recognizing PSPP’s critical contributions to the field of criminal and juvenile justice reform. From conception to execution, the project’s strategies have helped numerous states secure successful legislative changes under both Republican and Democratic state leadership. In the process, Pew and its partners have enabled states to reduce incarcerated populations and save billions of dollars in related costs, while maintaining high levels of public safety.

Yet, there is more work to be done. Criminal and juvenile justice issues have been elevated in the past year, particularly because of the physical health
threats posed by the spread of COVID-19 in confined spaces, the fiscal health threats of an economic downturn, and broad-based calls for racial equity and attention to the significant racial disparities manifest in the justice system.

Nicole Trentacoste is The Pew Charitable Trusts’ director of evaluation and program learning, for which Josh Joseph is a senior officer. Jake Horowitz, director of Pew’s public safety performance project, also contributed to this article.

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