What the End of the “Get Tough on Crime” Era Means for Cities

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This is the fourth post in NLC’s 90th Anniversary series.

Prison-crime-blog

The “get tough on crime” movement, emerging in the late 1960s and early 1970s led to enormous increases in drug arrests, longer prison sentences with mandatory minimums, more punitive juvenile justice sentencing and greater incarceration of juveniles, low-income individuals and people of color.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), about 6.98 million people were under some form of adult correctional supervision in the U.S. at yearend, 2011.  This is the equivalent of about 1 in 34 adults – or about 2.9 percent of the adult population – in prison or jail, or on probation or parole.

By the end of 2012, there were around 1.35 million people incarcerated in state prisons, 217,800 in federal prisons and 744,500 in local jails. From 1998 to 2009, the state cost of mass incarceration of criminals increased from $12 billion to $52 billion per year.

Today, there is movement to reform the criminal justice system and reverse the trend of mass incarceration of nonviolent and drug related offenders.  Federal, state and local leaders are looking for innovative ways to reduce the costs of criminal justice and corrections by keeping low-risk, nonviolent, drug involved offenders out of prison or jail, while still holding them accountable and ensuring the safety of our communities.

The Administration, Congress and many states are enacting new policies to slow the growth of prison populations and even downsizing corrections systems to save hundreds of millions of dollars.

Impact of Reform on Cities

As federal and state sentencing reforms begin to take shape, cities and towns will most likely see a considerable rise in the number of former nonviolent criminals returning back home.

According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy over 9 million ex-offenders cycle through local jails and nearly 700,000 ex-offenders are released from state and federal prisons every year back into their local communities.  This number is expected to go up dramatically as sentencing reform takes place. Without sufficient federal and state support for local programs aimed at transitioning ex-offenders back into the community, cities may see a rise in crime levels which will lead to an increase in recidivism rates.

The BJS estimated two-thirds (68 percent) of the 405,000 prisoners released in 30 states in 2005 were arrested for a new crime within three years of release from prison, and three-quarters (77 percent) were arrested within five years.  More than a third (37 percent) of prisoners who were arrested within five years of release were arrested within the first six months after release, with more than half (57 percent) arrested by the end of the first year.

Support to Prevent Recidivism

While experts agree that sentencing reform is needed for nonviolent, drug related and juvenile delinquent crimes, there is also a need to increase the level of funding and support for programs to prevent recidivism.

The Second Chance Act (SCA), signed into law on April 9, 2008, was designed to improve outcomes for people returning to communities after incarceration. The legislation authorizes federal grants to local governments and nonprofit organizations to provide support and services to reduce recidivism.

In accordance with the SCA, in 2013, the Department of Justice awarded $62 million in competitive and supplemental grants to 112 state, tribal and local governments and non-profit organizations to reduce recidivism, provide reentry services, conduct research and evaluate the impact of reentry programs.

Grant programs authorized by SCA could get additional funding to support local government efforts to reduce recidivism, but only if the federal government does not divert the money saved from reducing prison populations to deficit reduction or other efforts.

Role of Local Elected Officials

There are a number of barriers that prevent young nonviolent ex-offenders from becoming productive members in their communities, including drug and alcohol addiction, mental illness, unemployment and homelessness. Once in the criminal justice system, many of these young people will have criminal records that will last for decades, if not the rest of their lives.

When they are released from prison, many of them have difficulty finding a job and a place to live, and most return to a life of crime because of the lack of opportunities.  Thus, the cycle of recidivism continues, creating challenges and missed opportunities not only for themselves and their families but for the cities in which the live.

Mayors and council members across the country are looking at ways to support local programs that help ex-offenders re-enter into society.  One of the key challenges is to create an equitable and sustainable system that will provide opportunities for nonviolent ex-offenders to find jobs and affordable housing.  More than 60 cities and 12 states across the country have instituted policies that would ban the box on employment applications asking individuals about their conviction history.

Municipal officials play a vital role in reintegrating ex-offenders back in society.  They manage key functions of local government that are essential to breaking the cycle of recidivism, including law enforcement, jails, health and human services, housing authorities, workforce development boards, after school programs, and community development programs.  They also play a vital role in bringing together key stakeholders, community leaders, and faith-based organizations that provide many of the social services that are needed by ex-offenders.

The Urban Institute put together the Elected Official’s Toolkit for Reentry (2011) to help local elected officials develop successful reentry programs for ex-offenders.  In addition, The Annie E. Casey Foundation, U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Labor published the Council of State Governments White Paper titled the Integrated Reentry and Employment Strategies: Reducing Recidivism and Promoting Job Readiness.

Need for Federal Action

There is movement in Congress to pass legislation that will allow a pathway to sealing criminal records of adult nonviolent ex-offenders and sealing and expunging juvenile records to make it easier for ex-offenders to apply for employment.  Citing the need to embrace bipartisan solutions that lessen the taxpayers’ burden and increase public safety, U.S. Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Rand Paul (R-KY) introduced S. 2567, The REDEEM Act (Record Expungement Designed to Enhance Employment).

Additional policy changes are being considered by federal, state and local leaders that would lift the ban on certain benefits for low level drug offenders who may need medical and substance abuse treatments and examine policies that may prevent these ex-offenders from finding affordable housing.

On January 2011, Attorney General Eric Holder also convened the Federal Interagency Reentry Council  with the purpose of removing federal barriers to successful reentry, so that ex-offenders who have served their time and paid their debts are able to compete for a job, attain stable housing, support their families, and contribute to their communities.

NLC continues to work closely with other local and state government organizations to support federal policies such as the Second Chance Act to help municipalities develop successful and sustainable programs aimed at reducing recidivism and reintegrating ex-offenders back into the community.

Yucel-OrsAbout the Author: Yucel (u-jel) Ors is NLC’s Program Director of Public Safety and Crime Prevention. Through Federal Advocacy, he lobbies on behalf of cities around crime prevention, corrections, substance abuse, municipal fire policy, juvenile justice, disaster preparedness and relief, homeland security, domestic terrorism, court systems and gun control.  Follow Yucel on Twitter at @nlcpscp.