Friday, October 4, 2013

The Cautionary Instruction: Justice Reinvestment may not deliver on promises

Matthew T. Mangino
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/Ipso Facto
October 4, 2013

Justice Reinvestment is sputtering in Ohio. The two-year-old plan to reduce Ohio’s prison inmate population is not having the hoped-for impact. The number of prisoners behind bars is expected to spike.

Gary Mohr, director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, said the state prisons’ already high population of 50,000 could soar to 52,000 in two years and top 53,000 in six years. The population numbers are in contrast to rosy projections from 2011 when lawmakers passed the Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI).

Under the law, the number of inmates was supposed to drop to around 47,000 by 2015 and dip below 47,000 two years after that.

JRI is a data-driven approach to improve public safety, reduce corrections and related criminal justice spending, and reinvest savings in strategies that can decrease crime and strengthen neighborhoods. Seventeen states are involved in implementing some form of justice reinvestment including Pennsylvania.

As a result of JRI, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections touted a decline in the inmate population of 573 inmates during the period ending December 31, 2012-- the largest decrease and only the third yearly population decline in the past 40 years.

Secretary of Corrections John Wetzel said in May, “We are closing two facilities -- SCI Greensburg and SCI Cresson -- older, more costly and less efficient facilities which will result in $22-$23 million in savings in the 2013-14 budget.”

However, as in Ohio, the news in 2013 is not so cheery. For the first eight months of the year, Pennsylvania’s prison population is on the rise. This year, there are 254 more inmates in Pennsylvania’s prisons bringing the total as of August 31 to 51,438.

Ohio is currently at 131 percent of inmate capacity and could hit 139 percent by 2019. California’s prison system was declared unconstitutional at 140 percent. Pennsylvania is at a “modest” 110 percent of capacity.

To fix the problem, Mohr proposes working with judges to find ways to reduce prison commitments and with lawmakers to re-examine penalties for less serious crimes.

Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor admitted in her recent State of the Judiciary speech that some of the overcrowding initiatives included in JRI have “not been as successful as hoped.”

Justice O’Connor acknowledged that, “We as judges must be part of the solution because we are certainly part of the problem. We cannot take an attitude of out of sight, out of mind once offenders leave the courtroom.”

I recently wrote for GateHouse News Service, “The criminal justice system can benefit from meaningful reform. Let’s not nibble around the edges.” JRI is, unfortunately, part of the nibbled edge.

Real criminal justice reform would open the door to alleviating prison overcrowding, provide a fairer sentencing scheme and reduce the collateral consequences of conviction.

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