Friday, May 25, 2012

The Cautionary Instruction: Justice Reinvestment Initiative considers reform recommendations

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/Ipso Facto
May 25, 2012

The Justice Reinvestment Initiative is a bipartisan group, composed of judges, lawmakers, state cabinet members and other state and local leaders. The work group was established in January by Governor Tom Corbett.

Wednesday, the group was presented with key recommendations for improving the state's criminal justice system following a five-month analysis by the Council of State Governments Justice Center.

The recommendations include, among others, expanding local resources to reduce recidivism by increasing funds to counties that maximize probation and other diversionary options besides state prison. Diversionary sentences include electronic monitoring, day reporting, intensive supervision and treatment, in addition to imposing more county jail sentences.

Just a couple of weeks ago another bipartisan coalition, with an unlikely point man, made some similar recommendations. George Leader was elected governor of Pennsylvania in 1954. He was 36 years old. Now at age 94, Leader and his coalition made some recommendations that run parallel to the work of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative.

Support for Leader’s agenda comes from a wide and varied collection of interests including the conservative Pennsylvania Family Institute, the generally liberal Prison Society, the ACLU, the County Commissioners Association and others like former Philadelphia Mayor Wilson Goode.

One of Leader’s proposals goes further than the Justice Reinvestment Initiative’s recommendations. Leader’s group suggested evaluating the criminal risk of an offender before the judge imposes sentence.

Punishment, or diversion from it, should be based, in part, on the offender’s risk to the community. The concept is an interesting one, but not without precedent. Virginia currently utilizes a risk assessment for purposes of sentencing.

The higher the assessment score, the less likely the offender will be diverted from prison. In Virginia, all violent offenders and anyone convicted of distributing more than one ounce of a controlled substance are eliminated from consideration for diversion. The remaining offenders are administered an assessment prior to sentencing.

The risk assessment, because of its heavy reliance on age, gender and juvenile criminal records, has the effect of increasing the assessment score for young, male offenders. Older, nonviolent career criminals tend to score lower on the assessment. The result is consistent with research indicating that the most violent segment of the population is 16 to 24 year old males.

The Virginia sentence guidelines are utilized to control prison growth while incapacitating violent and criminally active young offenders. The recidivism rate for those diverted from prison is 12 percent as compared to those sent to prison who recidivate at a rate of 38 percent.

The work of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative is extremely important. There were 7,000 inmates in state prison when Governor Leader left office. Now there are more than 50,000.

It is encouraging to see the wide range of reforms being considered. Leader’s suggestion merits a second look. Risk assessments at the front end of the punishment process are a smart approach to fiscal responsibility, public safety and offender accountability.

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