Since 2009, more than half of the states have taken steps to slow or eliminate prison growth and control ballooning correctional costs. This reversal of more than 30 years of sustained growth occurred in the middle of a historic decline in crime rates, creating an impressive narrative of more public safety with fewer people in prison.
Some states have chosen to invest a portion of the savings from these reforms into programs or services that further contribute to public safety. Typically, this has taken the form of reinvestments directed toward strengthening probation, parole and, to a lesser degree, law enforcement. While that may seem like a sensible investment, it actually represents a missed opportunity. Here is why.
Recent research suggests that community organizations that invest in diverse strategies such as economic development, treatment and counseling, healthy neighborhoods, and expanded green space have been a critical factor in reduced rates of violent crime.
In fact, focusing public safety investments narrowly on policing and incarceration strategies, which may not necessarily align with community needs, can contribute to existing disadvantage and instability. States are spending millions of dollars annually to arrest and incarcerate people in some neighborhoods, while ignoring many of the underlying causes of crime: the lack of health care, housing, economic development and social services.
Overlooking these factors fails to adequately address basic public needs and can disrupt and destabilize communities by cycling people in and out of the criminal justice system.
The emerging reality is that neighborhoods are safer and experience less crime when residents are engaged and empowered to work together toward shared goals. Colorado provides one example of how we can achieve this. The Work and Gain Education and Employment Skills (WAGEES) program, created in 2014 by the Colorado General Assembly, supports a strong partnership between the Colorado Department of Corrections and local faith and community-based organizations. The program funds these local organizations to facilitate successful reentry and decrease the recidivism rate of medium to high-risk people on parole. The grants fund community programs that help those on parole to obtain high school diplomas (or equivalent), industry-recognized credentials, long-term vocational or postsecondary education, and employment.
According to a new Urban Institute report, early performance metrics from the program suggest it is achieving and exceeding its goals — most notably, over-enrollment in every quarter and only 2.5 percent of WAGEES program beneficiaries have returned to prison for committing new crimes while in the program.
Not only can Colorado’s program serve as a model for other states, but a recent national poll on public safety and community investment shows broad public support for a wide range of community-based reforms and services to improve public safety. A recent poll conducted by Lake Research Partners found over three-quarters of voters support proposals to move funding from incarceration to community-based public safety programs (78 percent support and 16 percent oppose). This support spans partisan divides, with big majorities from Republicans (70 percent support), Democrats (85 percent support) and independents (81 percent support).
Community-based organizations play a central role in providing basic services and making neighborhoods safer, but they are generally under-resourced and often excluded from public funding streams. Bolstered by the growing research showing the promise of locally driven public safety solutions, states are beginning to explore alternative public finance models that ensure resources follow justice-involved people back to the communities that have been hit hardest by mass incarceration. It’s far past time that we listen to what communities need and empower local voices to develop their own public safety strategies.
Ryan King is a senior fellow in the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute, where he works on sentencing and corrections issues with a focus on mass incarceration. He produces research and works with policymakers, practitioners, and community advocates to identify strategies that assist in the pursuit of a fair and effective criminal justice system.