Criminal Justice: Front-Line Fixes



Illustration of criminatl justice policy being painted

New Criminal Justice Reforms Are Rerouting People Who Don’t Belong in the System

By Amber Widgery

State and local policymakers are turning their attention from the back end of the criminal justice system—who goes to prison and for how long—to the front end. They are focusing on helping people avoid involvement in the system altogether, rerouting those who get caught up in it but don’t belong, and helping those already involved from getting in even deeper.

Back-end changes over the last decade have led to cost savings and a decline in prison populations in many states, but they’ve addressed only one lever in the complex machinery of the American justice system. And they haven’t stemmed the tide of individuals coming through the system’s front door.

Nearly 12 million people are booked into county jails each year—almost 19 times the admissions to state and federal prisons combined. Nationally, our jails are bursting at the seams and most people—sentenced offenders and those detained before trial—are there for nonviolent traffic, property, drug or other public order offenses.

Research shows that even a few days in jail can harm an individual’s employment prospects and health and can increase the chances they will reoffend or be incarcerated in the future, making jails a virtual gateway to further crime and punishment.

Front-end reforms are aimed at reducing this influx. They require rethinking the way America uses jails, including:

  • Expanding community-based services like housing programs and treatment for mental health and addiction to prevent justice involvement and to help jail inmates successfully reenter the community.
  • Supporting programs like LEAD (Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion), which allows law enforcement officers to redirect low-level drug offenders to community-based services, instead of jail and prosecution.
  • Changing bail/pretrial release policies to create a system that’s person-based, not wealth-based.

Starting With the Facts

Many front-end justice reforms have been kickstarted by the need to address jail overcrowding. With jails across the nation operating at or above capacity, officials have been forced to improvise, double- or triple-bunking inmates and turning common areas into makeshift dormitories.

These extreme conditions have prompted some local officials to take a closer look at who is in jail, why they are there and whether their detention promotes or hinders public safety.

National data show that people having a mental health crisis are more likely to encounter law enforcement than medical assistance. Data also show that most people in local jails have not been convicted, but are awaiting trial, and that nearly 70 percent of those detainees are held on traffic, property or drug charges, not for violent offenses.

 But the devil is in the data we don’t have. It is hard to find statewide data that are current, uniform and comprehensive. Cities and counties are responsible for large portions of the criminal justice system infrastructure. Localities often collect data in different formats or by using different metrics. Some don’t collect data at all. As a result, it can be difficult to piece together a clear statewide picture of the justice system.

Florida is the first state to pass legislation to address this issue by requiring information across the system to be compiled in a publicly available central database. The measure passed with nearly unanimous support.

“It’s hard to fight the idea of being completely transparent,” says Representative Chris Sprowls (R), a former prosecutor.

Change at All Levels

The justice system encompasses states, counties, cities, courts, law enforcement agencies and other local entities. All of these stakeholders are part of a national movement to improve the system—driving change at all levels.

Many innovative efforts are supported by national campaigns, including:

  • The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge—A network of 43 counties, seven cities and two states committed to changing how America thinks about and uses jails.
  • The Stepping Up Initiative—A national partnership between the Council of State Governments Justice Center, the National Association of Counties and the American Psychiatric Association Foundation encompassing 455 counties dedicated to reducing the number of people with mental illness in jail.
  • The Laura and John Arnold Foundation’s Public Safety Assessment—A suite of resources supporting at least 40 jurisdictions, including the states of Arizona, Kentucky and New Jersey, to implement pretrial risk assessment.
  • Measures for Justice—An effort, funded by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, Google, and the MacArthur and Arnold foundations, to collect county-level criminal justice data and report information from 20 states by 2020.

There’s no quick fix to the issues at the system’s front end, but doing nothing will certainly not solve the problems and could even make them worse.

Amber Widgery is a senior policy specialist in NCSL’s Criminal Justice Program.

Note: This article appears in the print edition of the November/December 2018 issue, with the headlines, “The Front Line: The criminal justice system is getting a front-end makeover.”

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