Tag Archives: Prison Spending

A New Public Health Approach to Criminal Justice Reform in New York City

New York City just announced a bold but smart step forward: it will allocate $130 million over the next four years to a public health approach to criminal justice. The goal, according to The New York Times, is “to break the revolving door of arrest, incarceration and release that has trapped many troubled individuals in the system for relatively minor, quality-of-life offenses.”

Recognizing that almost 40% of those in New York City’s jails are mentally ill, and that people were cycling in and out of jail repeatedly as a result of substance abuse and mental health problems, the City will implement public health programs throughout the criminal justice system, from “tripling the size of . . . pretrial diversion programs” to increasing “the amount of resources devoted to easing the transition from jail back into society.”

“I think this is what criminal justice looks like in the 21st century,” said Elizabeth Glazer, Mayor Bill DeBlasio’s criminal justice coordinator, who was co-chair of a task force that developed the new policy.

We couldn’t agree more. New York’s shift reflects findings and recommendations of two recent HIAs we conducted – one on treatment alternatives to incarceration in Wisconsin and one on Proposition 47 in California, which reduced the penalties for drug possession and petty theft crimes. Both studies found that so-called tough-on-crime strategies have not succeeded in increasing public safety but have led to recidivism rates around the country greater than 50%. People in prison or jail are six times more likely to have a mental health disorder and 20 times more likely to have a substance abuse problem. Most importantly, we found that programs to address mental health and substance abuse issues reduce recidivism and are cost-effective.

The Vera Institute of Justice recently released an expansive report – On Life Support: Public Health in the Age of Mass Incarceration – that backs up the City’s approach by describing the myriad intersections between the justice system and public health. David Cloud, author of the report, writes:

Mass incarceration is one of a series of interrelated factors that has stretched the social and economic fabric of communities, contributing to diminished educational opportunities, fractured family structures, stagnated economic mo¬bility, limited housing options, restricted access to essential social entitlements, and reduced neighborhood cohesiveness. In turn, these collateral consequences have widened the gap in health outcomes along racial and socioeconomic gra¬dients in significant ways.

These findings parallel our own. The Vera Institute also sees an opportunity in the Affordable Care Act to address these issues. The report is part of a new initiative called Justice Reform for Healthy Communities, which fundamentally recognizes that “mass incarceration is one of the major public health challenges facing the United States.”

An amazing New York Times editorial on the day before Thanksgiving, Mass Imprisonment and Public Health, also reflects this public health approach. Citing the Vera report, the editors point out the obvious: people in prison are not healthy. People in prison also often come from impoverished communities that have serious health issues and less access to health care. The Times said: “The experience of being locked up — which often involves dangerous overcrowding and inconsistent or inadequate health care — exacerbates these problems, or creates new ones.” Solitary confinement and other prison “management” practices do additional harm. As the Times noted, this also affects future generations, with 2.7 million children nationwide having a parent in prison. The editors conclude:

If this epidemic is going to be stopped . . . public health and criminal justice systems must communicate effectively with one another. . . . Public health professionals should seize a unique opportunity to help guide criminal justice reform while they have the chance.

Again, we couldn’t agree more. It’s time for public health leaders across the nation to step up and seize this moment. Human Impact Partners is happy to support those in public health that want to move in this direction. This new direction only further affirms what we are focused on: Transforming the policies and places people need to live healthy lives by increasing the consideration of health and equity in decision-making.

Treatment, Not Prison: Reforming Sentences for Low-Level Crimes Will Boost Health and Safety for All Californians

[Originally posted at The Pump Handle]

Reforming California’s sentences for low-level crimes would alleviate prison and jail overcrowding, make communities safer, strengthen families, and shift resources from imprisoning people to treating them for the addictions and mental health problems at the root of many crimes, according to a study by Human Impact Partners.

Rehabilitating Corrections in California, a Health Impact Assessment of reforms proposed by a state ballot initiative, predicts the changes would reduce crime, recidivism, and racial inequities in sentencing, while saving the state and its counties $600 million to $900 million a year – but only if treatment and rehabilitation programs are fully funded and implemented properly.

Read the full article at The Pump Handle.

Reforming California’s broken criminal justice system

If you haven’t seen John Oliver’s piece on the prison system in the United States, you should check it out. Oliver uses satire to make his point that the U.S. criminal justice system, and particularly the War on Drugs, fosters massive inequities.

“On the one hand, the War on Drugs has completely solved our nation’s drug problem, so that’s good. On the other hand, our drugs laws do seem to be a little draconian, and a lot of racist. Because while white people and African Americans use drugs about the same amount, a study has found that African Americans have been sent to prison for drug offenses at up to 10 times the rate, for some utterly known reason.”

What the U.S. prison system does to people and families, particularly communities of color, isn’t humorous at all, of course, and that was Oliver’s point. It’s depressing.

“Tough on crime” sentencing policies gained significant traction as the War on Drugs picked up in the 1980s. While appearing tough on crime was good for politicians’ reelection prospects, did anyone look down the road to anticipate the long-term impacts of criminalizing health problems like substance abuse and mental illness?

This summer as an intern at HIP, I’ve been working with a team of people to conduct a Health Impact Assessment to evaluate the impacts of tough sentencing policies. Proposition 47, the “Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act” ballot initiative, would change six low-level non-violent felonies to misdemeanors, and channel savings to prevent crime, treat offenders and people victimized by crime, and keep kids in school. Our HIA found that the ballot initiative would improve the chances at healthier and happier lives for Californians and their families.

We heard directly from the people across the state who would be most impacted by a change in sentencing policies – people who had been incarcerated, their family members, and the service providers who help them. Some quotes from our focus groups:

It used to be you do the crime, you do the time, but it’s no longer like that. The felony conviction on your record lasts for a long time. You can’t get a job, you can’t get housing, and you recidivate.”

“People don’t understand that when you lock someone up, it makes their family go through that mental turmoil, that trauma, every day. Locking someone up tears families up. It makes them go crazy.”

“If I had help for mental illness, I wouldn’t have went to prison. If I had a job, I wouldn’t have gone to prison.”

It saves money to boot. Because charging people with misdemeanors instead of felonies for these low level crimes would mean that thousands of people would not go to prison, the state would save $200 million to $300 million a year. There would be fewer people sentenced to jail as well, so counties will save $400 million to $600 million. Proposition 47 requires that state savings go toward helping the root causes of people committing crime – up to $195 million for mental health and substance abuse treatment, up to $75 million for truancy and dropout prevention, and up to $30 million for victim of crime services.

An HIA about incarceration that HIP worked on in Wisconsin also showed that providing treatment alternatives to incarceration were resoundingly positive: it would reduce recidivism, keep families together, and save money. The evidence is so strong, as one of the Wisconsin HIA partners said, “The greatest challenge in presenting the HIA was to explain to journalists that we were not hiding the downside of the policy – the preponderance of evidence for alternatives was simply that overwhelming.”

Sometimes the best public health interventions are not, strictly speaking, health interventions. A policy change that reduces the criminalization of substance abuse and mental health issues would support Californians to have a better shot at living healthy lives.

Matthew Mellon is pursuing a dual master’s degree in Public Health and Public Policy at the University of Michigan.

Making Mass Incarceration a Memory

“We cannot simply prosecute or incarcerate our way to becoming a safer nation. To be effective, federal efforts must also focus on prevention and reentry.”– U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, 8/12/13

Last week, Attorney General Holder announced a plan for three key reforms to federal drug policy. If implemented, gone will be mandatory minimum sentences for many non-violent offenders. Non-violent, elderly inmates who have served substantial parts of their sentences will be considered for early release. And by encouraging the sharing of best practices, the Justice Department will support greater use of alternatives to prison.

The shift in federal policy was spurred by skyrocketing prison costs. As The Guardian reports, states like Texas and Arkansas were ahead of the federal government in looking at ways to reduce costs through more humane sentencing.

But saving money is not the only benefit. There’s another win here.  Expanding alternatives to prison will make communities safer, strengthen families and improve public health.

These were the findings from a 2012 HIA on the impacts of increased investment by the State of Wisconsin in problem-solving courts and other programs to keep low-risk non-violent offenders out of prison. For the study, Human Impact Partners partnered with WISDOM, a statewide network of faith-based congregations working to slash the number of people in prison.

We found that expanding alternatives to incarceration could keep thousands from prison – and rather than putting them behind bars, it could provide the help they need to get their lives back on track. Investment in alternatives could keep more than 24,000 people out of prison or jail, instead of sending them to drug courts, mental health courts and other diversion programs.

More than half of prisoners in Wisconsin are parents. Prison tears families apart, but diversion programs keep them together, enabling parents to continue caring for their children. These programs also are proven to reduce the risk of returning to prison, so they actually reduce crime and improve chances of recovery from substance abuse and to finding jobs.

Most compelling for legislators, the Wisconsin study found that state funding for alternatives would provide a return on investment of almost 2 to 1. By investing $75 million in alternative programs, the state would save $150 million in criminal justice costs.

For a state corrections system whose costs had topped $1.3 billion, the economic argument was certainly compelling. But the human story may have trumped it.

As one drug court participant said, “Drug court saved my life.”  Another told of how recovery from drug addiction enabled him to give back to his community and his family. Almost every former prisoner we spoke to had a story of a breakdown in their relationship with their children and partners. They reported stress, poor mental health and low self-esteem, and described neglect suffered in overcrowded prisons.

In an era of sharp partisan division, it’s refreshing to hear that progressives and conservatives both support the actions announced by the Attorney General – even if for different reasons.  As TIME reports, some see primarily the cost savings, while others are encouraged by the reforms’ potential to stem the so-called cradle-to-prison pipeline.

Alternatives to prison save money, but it’s important that the savings be funneled back into improving and expanding diversion and treatment programs. The initiatives outlined by Holder are a good first step; a next task is to ensure adequate funding both for alternatives to prison that avert re-entry, and for mental health and substance abuse treatment programs that prevent people from entering the criminal justice system in the first place.