Reforming Funding to Reduce Mass Incarceration

November 22, 2013

The Brennan Center for Justice's new proposal, Reforming Funding to Reduce Mass Incarceration, sets out a plan to link federal grant money to modern criminal justice goals – as a tool to promote innovative crime-reduction policies nationwide.

The proposal, dubbed by the authors “Success-Oriented Funding,” would recast the federal government’s $352 million Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant (JAG) Program, by changing the measures used to determine success of its grants. It reflects a broader proposed shift in criminal justice programs at all levels of government. The proposal could be implemented without legislation by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Success-Oriented Funding would hold grant recipients accountable for what they do with the money they receive. By implementing direct links between funding and proven results, the government can ensure the criminal justice system is achieving goals while not increasing unintended social costs or widening the pipeline to prison.

“Funding what works and demanding success is critical, especially given the stakes in criminal justice policy. This report marks an important step toward implementing this funding approach in Washington and beyond,” said Peter Orszag, former Director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, who wrote the proposal’s foreword.

The Brennan Center convened a Blue Ribbon Panel of criminal justice experts, including leaders in law enforcement, prosecutors and public defenders, former government officials, and federal grant recipients, to provide comments on the performance measures in the proposal. Participants included David LaBahn, president of the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys; John Firman, research director of the International Association of Chiefs of Police; and Jerry Madden, a senior fellow at Right on Crime.

Read a Summary

Read the Report


Read Letters of Support

View on Scribd




by Peter Orszag 

Millions of Americans have felt the direct effects of the recent government shutdown, just the latest in a series of fiscal standoffs that have threatened our economic recovery and distracted leaders from the country’s real challenges. With partisan leaders perpetually miles apart on overall spending levels, and with no agreed-upon method for carving up the federal pie, failure seems forever on the horizon. This is an opportune moment to reconsider how we spend federal dollars. Criminal justice policy is an important place to start. In 2002, Billy Beane, general manager of the Oakland A’s and creator of the “Moneyball” approach to baseball, found a way to get better results with fewer resources, building a team that successfully took on its big-budget competitors despite a substantial financial disadvantage.

Could Washington do the same?

We can use this new era of fiscal scarcity to make Washington work better. By taking a cue from Billy Beane and implementing key tactics, policymakers can make better decisions, get better results, and create more areas of bipartisan agreement — and even help avert future crises.

The approach is simple.

First, government needs to figure out what works. Second, government should fund what works. Then, it should stop funding what doesn’t work.

“Moneyball” encourages success. It encourages results and innovation. It spends dollars wisely. And it is grounded in the most basic economic principles.

Based on rough calculations, less than $1 out of every $100 of government spending is backed by even the most basic evidence that the money is being spent wisely. With so little performance data, it is impossible to say how many of the programs are effective. The consequences of failing to measure the impact of so many of our government programs — and of sometimes ignoring the data even when we do measure them — go well beyond wasting scarce tax dollars. Every time a young person participates in a program that doesn’t work but could have participated in one that does, that represents a human cost. And failing to do any good is by no means the worst sin possible: Some state and federal dollars flow to programs that actually harm the people who participate in them.

This Brennan Center report marks an important step toward implementing this funding approach in Washington and beyond. This report’s policy framework, termed “Success-Oriented Funding” starts with the justice system. It applies this framework to put forth a concrete policy proposal to reform the nation’s single largest source of funding for criminal justice. Funding what works and demanding success is just as critical in this context as for other spending — perhaps even more so considering what is at stake: the safety of the public and a deprivation of liberty for defendants.

Embracing Success-Oriented Funding will move us toward a more effective, socially beneficial, and efficient criminal justice system.

Orszag is the former director of the White House Office of Management and Budget and the Congressional Budget Office. He is currently the vice chairman of global banking at Citigroup.

Reforming Funding to Reduce Mass Incarceration