5 Questions on Criminal Justice Reform

Reforming America’s criminal justice system and advancing efforts to break cycles of incarceration in low-income communities would positively impact almost every other social challenge we face, from education to workforce development and public health. In particular, these efforts could improve opportunities for young men of color, who are disproportionately represented in the prison system and painfully absent from their families and communities.

The gears of the justice system are among the rustiest social and institutional mechanisms that reinforce poverty and undermine social mobility, but momentum for change is building. In January, New Profit made its first major investment in an anti-recidivism program through a unique “Pay for Success” deal in Massachusetts. The Anti-Recidivism Coalition, a California-based group led by film producer and New Profit friend Scott Budnick, has scored some stunning victories. In Congress, the stars may be aligning for what  The New York Times called a “promising and unexpected achievement: the first major reforms to America’s broken criminal justice system in a generation.”

Here are five key questions to help you get up to speed on this moment of opportunity.

Why does the criminal justice system need reform?

Over the past three decades, the criminal justice system has become more expensive and less effective. Over 2.4 million people are incarcerated in the US (up 700% from 1970) and nearly 7 million people are under the supervision of adult correctional systems in some capacity. That’s 1 in every 35 adults in the US (2.9% of adult residents) that are on probation or parole or incarcerated in prison or jail. Urban communities of color are disproportionately affected: African-American men are now incarcerated at 6 times the rate of their white counterparts (in 1960, it was five times the rate). If current trends continue, one in three black males born today will spend time in prison during his lifetime.

The increased use of incarceration has come with a hefty price tag. The US now spends more than $80 billion annually on state and federal corrections–the second fastest growing area of state spending behind health care–and that number climbs to $260 billion when you include judicial, legal, and law enforcement expenditures. Despite increased spending, recidivism rates remain consistently high with four out of every ten adult offenders returning to prison within three years of release.

Is meaningful reform possible in the current political climate?

The severe economic and social costs of current criminal justice policies have attracted the attention of conservatives and liberals alike. At the federal level, President Obama recently announced the launch of the My Brother’s Keeper initiative aimed at improving opportunities for boys and young men of color, and Attorney General Eric Holder has repeatedly expressed support for reducing sentences for low-level offenders and for other “Smart on Crime” policies. In Congress, two pieces of bipartisan legislation currently under consideration (the Smarter Sentencing Act; and the Recidivism Reduction and Public Safety Act) attempt to address some of the aforementioned issues. And, at the Conservative Political Action Conference held recently, prominent conservative figures including Governor Rick Perry of Texas and Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform argued that criminal justice reform is and should remain a high priority for conservative policy makers.

Where is change already happening?

The most substantial reforms so far have been happening at the state level. More than 17 states (with varied political leanings and leadership) have joined the Bureau of Justice Assistance’s Justice Reinvestment Initiative, which entails adopting “a data-driven approach that enhances public safety, reduces corrections spending, and redirects savings to alternative criminal justice strategies that decrease crime and strengthen neighborhoods.” These reforms are projected to save $3.3 billion dollars including at least $374 million that will be reinvested in public safety initiatives.

Where are the opportunities for innovation?

Efforts to refocus criminal justice policies around evidence and outcomes are creating opportunities for organizations at all levels of the system. A perfect example of this is the aforementioned launch of the Massachusetts Juvenile Justice Pay for Success Initiative, which aims to reduce prison recidivism among high-risk young men. To address this challenge, a group of funders including New Profit came together and used the unique “Pay for Success” model to provide resources to expand the work of Roca Inc., a Boston-based organization that has had amazing success helping young men gain skills, placing them in jobs, and keeping them out of jail. In the Pay for Success arrangement, the funders are reimbursed by the state only if impact outcomes in the form of reduced nights in prison and increased job readiness and employment are achieved. Scott Budnick’s Anti-Recidivism Coalition was also able to push through a key reform in California that offered juvenile offenders serving long sentences the opportunity for parole after 15 years. Similar legislative reforms are creating equally exciting opportunities in many other states.

Where do we go from here?

As federal, state, and local governments shift away from a “prison first” approach to dealing with crime and other social ills, opportunities will increase for advocacy and service organizations to help craft a new vision for what criminal justice in America should look like. Organizations like Californians for Safety & Justice, the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, and Oregon’s Partnership for Safety & Justice are already helping drive this conversation at the state level. And, on the local level, public and private organizations like the Cambridge Safety Net Collaborative and the Center for Court Innovation are pioneering promising new approaches to law enforcement and restorative justice that are attracting national attention. Through its investment in Roca, New Profit has already concretely contributed to reform efforts and is continuing to look for opportunities to support innovative organizations in this space.


Adam Lewis is a policy analyst on the America Forward team. America Forward is a nonpartisan policy initiative of New Profit Inc.

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