Have Tough Crime Initiatives Gone Past Diminishing Returns?

Originally published December 12, 2010

Mike Klein, GPPF Editor

Georgia has a significant corrections system challenge and there’s no getting around that fact.  Nationally one in every 100 adults is behind state prison or local jail bars but the number is one in every 70 Georgia adults.  Nationally one in every 31 adults is in prison or jail, on probation or on parole but the comparable number is one in every 13 Georgia adults, worst in the nation.

“It’s really something else that this state is number one, if you will, when it comes to the extent of correctional control of its citizens,” said  Adam Gelb, current director of the Public Safety Performance Project at the Pew Center on the States and formerly, a U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee staff member.

Gelb moderated “Getting Criminal Justice Right: Less Crime for Less Money” at the inaugural Georgia Public Policy Foundation legislative conference.  Gelb was joined by Texas legislator Jerry Madden and Texas Public Policy Foundation analyst Marc Levin.  Madden is considered one of the nation’s top corrections systems innovators and Levin is director of the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas foundation.

Adam Gelb, Pew Center on the States Public Safety Performance Project

Gelb said 25 years ago Georgia spent about $150 million per year on state corrections.  Today the state corrections budget is about $1.1 billion.  But Georgia is not alone.  State corrections budgets exploded during recent years and now are substantial line items in state governments.

“Most people would say that would all be worth it if we got a really strong public safety return,” Gelb said, “and there’s no question that here in Georgia and across the country the expansion of incarceration has helped reduced the crime rate, no question at all.”

Gelb was executive director of the Georgia Governor’s Commission on Certainty in Sentencing between 2001 and 2003.  “When you lock up career offenders, when you lock up violent people that’s who you have prisons for and it pays off,” Gelb said.  “The issue is, have we locked up so many people, has the net been cast so wide that we’re past the point of diminishing returns?  The answer seems to be yes.”

This year Governing Magazine honored Madden and fellow Texas legislator John Whitmire as 2010 Public Officials of the Year for their efforts to reform the Texas corrections system.  The Lone Star state’s landmark 2007 reforms de-emphasized building new prisons.  They had so many new ideas that Madden is almost continuously on-the-road consulting with other states.

Jerry Madden, Texas State Representative

Madden and Whitmire designed a model that added 4,000 beds for substance abuse treatment, expanded specialty courts, expanded probation services, built short-term jails, and devoted new funding to mental health care and halfway release residences.  They received assistance from Levin at the Texas Public Policy Foundation and other corrections analysts.

Their new model required a $241 million Texas state government investment.  Their reforms replaced an option to spend $2 billion on new prison construction.  Last year the state’s prison population declined and Texas will not need new prison beds until at least the year 2014.

Levin said the current Texas crime rate is the lowest since 1973, even allowing for events at the contentious U.S.-Mexico border.  Gelb said Georgia’s prison population, about 55,000 adults, is up 30% over ten years and statewide crime is down about 20%.  He noted Mississippi and South Carolina passed recent corrections system reforms.  And, Gelb said the Pew Center will soon begin to work on reforms with Alabama and Louisiana.

Levin and Madden define corrections system reform, in part, as breaking the cycle of adult offenders who return to the corrections system.  “The smartest tool you have is a good risk assessment tool,” Madden said.  He urged states to determine whether offenders are “really bad people or were they people who made really dumb decisions?”

“As conservatives we emphasize limited government and we recognize public safety is, I think, one of those few core roles of government,” Levin said.  “It’s important to hold criminal justice agencies accountable for their results reducing recidivism and make sure that our system is truly effective.  We talk about merit pay, we talk about teach quality (and) accountability in education.  We ought to be just as demanding when it comes to corrections.”

Watch the panel on the Policy Foundation YouTube channel: http://tinyurl.com/3x625v4

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