South Carolina State Sen. Gerald Malloy discusses his state's successes. Sylvan Lane/Medill

South Carolina State Sen. Gerald Malloy discusses his state’s successes. Sylvan Lane/Medill

WASHINGTON – A Justice Department program may save states billions of dollars and reduce their prison populations by promoting reforms aimed at making the criminal justice system more efficient, according to a report by the Urban Institute.

However, the promising early numbers just scratch the surface at understanding a problem that is difficult to track.

The Urban Institute, a nonpartisan economic and social policy research center, reviewed 17 states’ participation in the Justice Reinvestment Initiative. The report highlighted projected decreases in prison population and expenses the eight states that have participated in the program for at least a year, but did not address the program’s impact on crime rates.

“The report is critical now at this juncture to really assess the impact of these investments while it’s still early in the process,” Denise O’Donnell, director of the Bureau of Justice Assistance at DOJ, said Wednesday during a briefing.

The reinvestment initiative is a partnership between Justice and the Pew Charitable Trust that gives states technological and financial support to streamline their criminal justice systems.

The goal is to reinvest money saved from prison expenses into programs intended to steer potential offenders away from crime and help incarcerated men and women avoid further offenses. States have already reinvested $169.8 million in savings, according to the report, and can save up to $4.6 billion collectively, the report estimated.

The initiative aims at curbing the “drivers” of criminal justice spending and incarceration, which include parole and probation revocations, overzealous sentencing and a lack of community supervision, and support for convicts once they’re released from prison.

South Carolina was of the first states to enact Justice Reinvestment Initiative reforms into law, doing so in June 2010. After corrections spending rose 500 percent and South Carolina’s prison population tripled between 1983 and 2008, the state turned to one of the reforms sought by the initiative. It increased and adjusted parolee supervision in a bid to get ex-convicts integrated into community life.

Since then South Carolina has saved more than $7 million and prevented the return of 1,000 probationers and parolees to prison.

Arkansas, which enacted Reinvestment Initiative reforms in July 2011, saw its prison population drop from 16,108 to 14,654 in 2012. Before the enabling state law was enacted, Arkansas’ prison population slowly increased in the years between 2005 and 2009, when it hit a plateau before the reinvestment reforms took effect.

Nancy La Vigne, author of the report and director of the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center, highlighted the cultural shift toward data-driven, evidence-based solutions and cooperation as the keys.

“We’ve seen real change in how policy is made with a lot of cross-system partnerships… that are challenging and impressive,” she said. “It can actually succeed when you have the right people at the table and the right leader at the helm”

Rep. Bobby Scott lauded the reinvestment project for being an effective way of flipping the “tough-on-crime” doctrine on its head.

“We know that there’s so many programs that are known that are evidence based that’ll both reduce crime and save money,” said the Virginia Democrat, drawing attention to the United States’ world-high incarceration rate of 716 detainees per 100,000 people. “All the prevention initiatives that we know work can suddenly get funded” through the reinvestment program.

However, it still seems too early to tell if the reinvestment project will actually deliver on the report’s projection of big savings and shrinking prison populations.

The report mentions that the prison population decreases could be influenced by other factors, and that the savings states get from the program may not be immediately realized.
And while the lower prison population projections may look promising, the report does not address whether or not the program has or will have any influence on actual crime rates in these states.

“When [then governor of South Carolina] Mark Sanford signed the [reinvestment initiative] bill into law, he said that this is one of the most meaningful pieces of legislation he’s signed while he was in office,” said South Carolina State Sen. Gerald Malloy, “but we won’t see the results for 20 years.”