As a professor of criminal justice, retired after 26 years from the University of Texas, and someone with over 20 years’ experience working in corrections, I have witnessed many reforms to the criminal justice system throughout the nation. I have often had my doubts about their ability to make a positive impact on the system, but I support Justice Reinvestment Initiatives (JRIs) because they work. With Arizona facing prison overcrowding as the costs of housing prisoners continue to rise, the corrections budget in Arizona will once again exceed $1 billion in taxpayer money.
I have a soft spot for Arizona. I lived in Mesa for six years and earned my PhD in public administration with an emphasis on criminal justice from Arizona State University. The degree enabled me to spend the last 26 years teaching at UT San Antonio. I feel qualified to ask you not to worry, Arizona – we will benefit from Justice Reinvestment Initiatives, just like our neighbors to the east in Texas and Georgia.
By 2007, citizens of Texas were facing the grim reality of needing to spend a half a billion dollars to build more prisons; we had become the state with the second-highest rate of incarceration in the country. With Texas’ history of being the state with some of the “toughest” criminal justice policies in the nation, citizens and policymakers on all sides cried out for change. The Legislature enacted substantial policy changes in the form of a Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI) strategy. Within eight years, the rate at which paroled offenders returned to prison after violating rules had dropped by 46 percent, and the state’s crime rate was at its lowest since 1968. Reinvestments in the system are giving taxpayers a greater return on their corrections spending.
Success stories resulting from the enacting of JRIs can also be found in South Carolina, Georgia, and Mississippi. These states have experienced falling crime and imprisonment rates. Beginning in 2012, South Carolina enacted reforms in both sentencing and the way in which felonies are classified. This resulted in meaningful savings to those states’ budgets, and there have been measurable changes to the numbers of those imprisoned. Prison populations are below projections. The same year as South Carolina, Georgia implemented new policies to reform sentencing and statutes governing recidivism. Georgia’s prison population declined by more than 2,000 people between 2012 to 2016 – the rates of violent and property crime dropped 8 percent.
Enacting a JRI strategy in Arizona is not something new. In 2008, after a two-year analysis of criminal justice data by Arizona state leaders and the Council of State Governments Justice Center, a Justice Reinvestment Initiative called the Safe Communities Act was signed into law. The act was primarily aimed at reforming probation policies to impact recidivism. Between 2008 and 2016, there was a 29 percent drop in the number of people revoked to prison for probation violations. New felony convictions of probationers decreased by 21 percent. Sadly, the Arizona Legislature did not follow through with the reinvestment portion of the initiative, and that part of the law was repealed because of pressures on the budget. But taxpayers saved almost a half a billion dollars. Arizona, you are headed in the right direction, but it’s time to get back on track with the rest of our original reinvestment plan and create safer communities in Arizona.
This past year, the Arizona Legislature introduced five criminal justice reform bills, all JRIs, addressing the collateral consequences of incarceration and thereby meant to reduce re-offending rates. They had bipartisan support but only one of the bills made it to the governor’s desk. Other states that are now reaping the benefits of JRIs also felt hesitant at first, including South Carolina, Georgia and Texas. So I would ask that Arizona policymakers get back to the drawing board and give it another try. It is worth the time and effort.
For Arizona, the bottom line is that the prison population will continue to be reduced by additional changes and the state will save a substantial amount of money over the next several years instead of continuing to increase spending without benefitting public safety. Isn’t it worth taking the extra step and reinstituting the reinvestment portion of the legislation? It will only add to the positive results we’ve already attained.
— Michael Gilbert has been a speaker for the Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP).
The views expressed in guest commentaries are those of the author and are not the views of the Arizona Capitol Times.