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Governors Propose Solutions to End Mass Incarceration

As state officials across the nation search for solutions to our criminal justice crisis, they should consider using funding to shape a better system.

  • Inimai M. Chettiar
  • Nicole Zayas Fortier
January 28, 2014

Crossposted from The Huffington Post

Last week, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie gave his second Inaugural Address. Buffeted by allegations of wrongdoing related to the 'bridgegate’ scandal, and having just fired top aides in an effort to close the book on a terrible January for his administration, the Governor needed to change the conversation back to his legislative and policy agenda.

Christie – formerly New Jersey’s chief federal law enforcement officer as attorney general – called for an end to the state’s failed war on drugs. He criticized the existing system “that believes that incarceration is the cure of every ill caused by drug abuse.” Instead, he proposed mandated drug treatment and employment services for people convicted of non-violent drug crimes. While New Jersey has already made progress in lowering the state’s prison population and recidivism rates, all while keeping crime down, Christie warned that “we can do better, and we must.”

Whether Christie’s motivation is political or moral, his stated commitment to rolling back mass incarceration deserves recognition. And as he moves forward on turning his words into action, Christie has plenty of models to choose from. In fact, governors across the country, whether liberal, conservative, or moderate, increasingly agree that our incarceration-centric criminal justice policies have gone too far.

Christie wasn’t even the only governor last week to propose solutions. Georgia Governor Nathan Deal (R) encouraged keeping more low-level offenders out of prison. Delaware Governor Jack Markell (D) emphasized that harsh penalties for the formerly incarcerated make it difficult for them to transition back into society. And California Governor Jerry Brown (D) praised his state’s progress at reducing the prison population, while acknowledging that there is still work ahead to be done.

As state officials across the nation are searching for solutions to our criminal justice crisis, they should consider using funding to shape a better system.

A “Success-Oriented Funding” model for criminal justice spending is a simple, yet effective approach: lay out clear goals for what taxpayer dollars should accomplish, then tie funding directly to achievement of those goals. The concept is simple: fund what works at reducing crime, dump what doesn’t – including unnecessary incarceration, which is tremendously expensive with little to no proven connection to a reduction in crime. It’s an example of how harnessing proven, data-driven private sector models and applying them to public dollars can incentivize policies that produce results.

Several states have already implemented Success-Oriented Funding programs, which can serve as models for other states looking to reduce unnecessary incarceration.

Illinois’ Adult Redeploy program aims to send nonviolent offenders to specialty courts or probation rather than prison. The state props up its program by providing certain counties with more dollars when they agree to send 25 percent fewer people to prison, giving county officials a financial incentive to use incarceration as a punishment of last resort. Since 2011, the program has cut recidivism within those counties by as much as 20 percent, kept over 800 people out of prison, and saved $16 million in prison costs.

In 2009, California similarly used the power of its purse when it passed the California Community Corrections Performance Incentive Act. The Act encourages probation offices to keep people who break their rules in the program rather than sending them back to prison by awarding counties up to 45 percent of the state’s prison savings. In its first year alone, California probation officers sent 23 percent less felony offenders back to prison, which saved the state nearly $180 million. In return, the state government awarded the counties $88 million from these savings. This funding structure incentivizes a better criminal justice system while saving government costs.

New York City provides another Success-Oriented funding model, in which the private sector takes a more prominent role. In 2012, Goldman Sachs invested $9.6 million in a New York City program to reduce juvenile recidivism at Riker’s Island jail. Goldman stands to earn up to $2.1 million in profit if it cuts recidivism by more than 10 percent in four years. But, should recidivism rise above 10 percent, Goldman would lose as much as $2.4 million. This kind of funding bets on the success of prisoners reintegrating into society.

Whether at the federal, state, or local level, financial incentives have a significant role in driving public policy. Requiring that funding supports better policies and practices is one way to achieve the twin goals of reducing crime and unnecessary incarceration. Gov. Christie – not to mention Governors Deal, Markell, Otter, and others around the country willing to take on needed criminal justice reform—should look towards Success-Oriented Funding to move us toward a more effective, socially beneficial, and efficient criminal justice system.

(Photo: Thinkstock)