By Jason Ziedenberg
In the fall of 2008, the national economy fell off a cliff. For state, county, and city officials, alarm bells were sounding off as revenue streams that supported everything from schools, to parks to prisons and police were suddenly under strain.
Staff at local probation and parole departments had the opportunity to see first-hand what an “fiscal emergency” looks like. System leaders were charged with the task of making huge cuts to treatment, housing and services for people under criminal justice supervision, and begged and borrowed every dollar they could find to stave off even more cuts to community-based organizations, and layoffs of staff.
During a time when many Community Based Organizations (CBOs) and community supervision agencies were trying to navigate the Great Recession, the Edwards Byrne Memorial Justice Grant (JAG) funds that government agencies received were a lifeline. Under the 2008 and 2009 federal stimulus, billions of dollars were funneled through JAG to shore up local criminal justice services.
At that critical moment in time – a period of time when many states reached double-digit unemployment and government contemplated slashing services – the JAG funds meant there was one more grant that did not have to be cut to a nonprofit agency that met a human need, and one more staff person that they didn’t have to lay off. Around the country, probation, parole and community supervision agencies responsible for supporting people in the community instead of prison thought that enhanced JAG funds under the federal stimulus might sustain core services until the recession passed.
What the field may not have known as well then, and what we know now, is how critical it is to have these funds tied to outcome measures that truly matter to public safety, and community development.
Because the JAG funds were not tied to rigorous outcomes and directed goals, in many criminal justice systems around the country, the lead agencies in local justice systems simply came around the table to split up “the JAG pot.” Probation and parole got to keep some drug treatment, housing and services for individuals they worked with, but the police, sheriff, and district attorneys simply shored up the same capacity to arrest, detain and incarcerate more people (or support “pet” projects, like drug courts, or homelessness courts — programs that do not get particularly great outcomes).
What would have helped these community would have been an opportunity for all the public safety partners to come around the table, and figure out what our biggest public safety and human service challenges were, and to agree to focus on them as a community. There should have been agreements developed on how to reduce the arrest, detention, conviction and imprisonment for individuals coming in the front door, so that we could balance the community-based response to meeting the service needs of individuals coming out the back door. If billions spent on JAG were tied to outcome measures and benchmarks as systems were struggling with massive cuts, we could have had objective and reasoned debates with law enforcement with concrete data to find ways to balance the capacity to arrest, detain, incarcerate and support individuals in the community with existing local dollars.
What happened instead: in some communities, local justice agencies simply split “the pot:” for every dollar available to serve people in the community after an arrest, detention and conviction, the police, prosecutors and sheriffs received $2 or $3 to sustain their capacity to bring people in the front door. The law enforcement share of the JAG was on top of the $1 billion local police and sheriffs might already have been receiving under the Community Oriented Policy Program (COPS).
If these billions of dollars had been tied to concrete outcomes and success-oriented statistics, the criminal justice partners would have been driven to find efficiencies. Instead, around the country, we saw local sheriffs' departments develop open booking procedures at the jail (a form of flash incarceration, where an individual might be jailed one day, and then returned to the community), we saw drug task forces whose focus was on arresting nonviolent people for drug offenses continue operating, and drug courts that have a mixed record in reducing crime or recidivism stayed open when local dollars dried up. With the number of people coming in the front door of the courts staying level, the back end of the system (probation, parole and community-based treatment) had worked even harder with scarcer dollars to find options to serve people with in the community.
If all the criminal justice agencies had been forced to keep outcome data on what works to make cost effective use of public resources, the public safety system have done things differently with the billion dollar investment in JAG and COPS:
- We might have seen city, state and county leaders work with police to shift practices to reduce the arrest of individuals for low level felonies, or misdemeanors;
- We might have seen communities close jails and prison, because the system could project fewer people coming in the door, and reinvest incarceration funds elsewhere in the system;
- We might have found informal ways to reduce the system's focus on non-violent, non-serious individuals whose behavior could have been addressed without criminal justice involvement;
- We might have invest more local and JAG dollars on the kind of culturally competent, community-based treatment that everyone knows is lacking to help support individuals under community supervision in the community.
No doubt, some local criminal justice departments made good use of the billions of JAG dollars that were funded under the 2008 and 2009 stimulus. No doubt, some local criminal justice departments voluntarily keep outcome data that demonstrate they are making a difference in reducing recidivism, and restoring communities and individuals impacted by crime, violence and incarceration. But because the JAG “pot” of funds are, in some states and localities, simply split with a handshake, and because JAG performance measures relate more to “outputs” (more arrests, more convictions, more detention, and more imprisonment) than “outcomes” (less recidivism, more connections to school, work, treatment, stability and permanency), JAG funds are a wash for many communities when we should be helping localities find balanced approaches to public safety.
Federal policymakers should shift to the same research-based, outcome-driven practices that are helping transform other sectors, and play role in helping criminal justice systems shift to better policies that will reduce crime, recidivism and reduce the harmful impact of incarceration.