Smart Steps to Take on the Road to Justice Reform

October 1, 2016

Leading a statewide effort to reform criminal justice policies can be daunting because the stakes are high for everyone involved. That is why many state leaders turn to a data-driven justice reinvestment approach to identify the drivers of rising corrections costs and develop state-specific solutions that reduce corrections spending and reinvest a portion of those savings into strategies that can reduce recidivism.

While every state’s effort is different, there are three key components to leading a successful reform initiative.

Use data to drive the conversation.

States that adopt a justice reinvestment approach collect and analyze data to build a broad picture of statewide criminal justice trends and use this information to identify and implement policy changes. Clearly presented data provides state leaders from all three branches of government and across the political spectrum the information they need to identify system-wide challenges and collaborate on developing potential solutions.

For example, in North Carolina, the data analysis showed a growing prison population and a probation system in need of repair, with people failing on probation supervision accounting for more than half of prison admissions. Then-state Rep. W. David Guice, a former probation administrator and a leader of the justice reinvestment initiative in the state, repeatedly met with other legislators, presented at numerous legislative committee hearings, and addressed the entire legislature on the merits of the proposed legislation, always urging the policy debate to remain focused on the data-driven impact the reforms could have on the criminal justice system. As a result of these efforts, North Carolina enacted justice reinvestment legislation in 2011. Between fiscal year 2011 and fiscal year 2015, the state’s prison population declined more than 9 percent and prison admissions due to probation violations have fallen by 65 percent.

After Idaho enacted justice reinvestment legislation, Kevin Kempf, director of Idaho’s Department of Correction, or IDOC, requested that The Council of State Governments’ Justice Center conduct an assessment of IDOC program curricula to learn if the state’s $10 million investment in recidivism-reduction programming was actually reducing recidivism. Once he learned that three-quarters of IDOC program curricula were outdated or no longer considered the most effective at reducing recidivism, he eliminated those programs and replaced them with program models based on what works to reduce recidivism.

Engage a multitude of stakeholders.

Through engaging a variety of stakeholders involved in different aspects of the criminal justice system, state leaders ensure these stakeholders have an opportunity to share their perspectives, contextualize the data and offer recommendations. Engaging a broad spectrum of people not only makes the resulting policy framework more comprehensive and increases support for the legislation but also helps ensure stakeholders are committed to successfully implementing the legislation.

In Oklahoma, then-Speaker of the House of Representatives Kris Steele drove across the state to attend three local town hall meetings to talk about what was driving prison population growth in the state and discuss potential solutions with local officials, business leaders, concerned citizens and leaders from faith communities. These conversations informed the resulting policy changes and were useful in achieving public support for the legislation the state ultimately enacted.

When Rhode Island launched its justice reinvestment effort, Gov. Gina Raimondo made it clear that this was a collaborative approach and criminal justice stakeholders from across the system should be included in the effort. More than 300 stakeholders statewide provided feedback and dozens met with her staff to share their perspectives and inform the resulting policies. For example, because probation officers explained the difficulty they face in providing meaningful supervision due to high caseloads and outdated policies, Rhode Island’s fiscal year 2017 state budget includes close to $900,000 for the Rhode Island Department of Corrections to improve the state’s probation system, through hiring additional probation officers and conducting full risk assessments.

In West Virginia, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin also emphasized the importance of stakeholder involvement when the state launched its justice reinvestment efforts. A wide range of stakeholders—from prosecutors to judges—expressed the need for more treatment options for people who needed substance use treatment while on supervision. After enacting justice reinvestment legislation in 2013, state spending on treatment for people on supervision increased from close to zero to a total of more than $11 million between fiscal year 2014 and fiscal year 2017.

Educate the public.

Effective state leaders know the value of public understanding of the impetus behind the state’s justice reinvestment effort and the goals of the resulting legislation. Open dialogue, a transparent process and an engaged press can help to get the public behind such an initiative.

In Alabama, the state’s prison system was the most crowded in the nation and its supervision system was stretched to its limits. Alabama state Sen. Cam Ward worked tirelessly with the media to ensure that the public understood why the state urgently needed reform. From writing opinion pieces and participating in podcasts to keeping the business community informed and answering journalists’ questions, Ward helped generate support for the legislation the state ultimately enacted, which strengthens community-based supervision, prioritizes prison space for violent offenders and provides supervision to every person released from prison.

Every state is different—there is no one model or set of policies that work in every state. Yet the more state leaders use data, talk to stakeholders and engage the public, the more likely comprehensive criminal justice legislation is be enacted and implemented effectively.


This project was supported by Grant No. 2013-ZB-BX-K002 awarded by the Bureau of Justice Assistance. The Bureau of Justice Assistance is a component of the Department of Justice’s Office of Justice Programs, which also includes the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the National Institute of Justice, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, the Office for Victims of Crime, and the SMART Office. Points of view or opinions in this document are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.

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