Exploring New Strategies for Criminal Justice System Reform


Connecting state and local government leaders

Since states play a leading role in corrections, governors have an opportunity to promote positive change throughout the criminal-justice system.

The U.S. spends $260 billion per year on our criminal-justice system, including policing, judicial processes, and corrections.[1] States are responsible for about a third of these costs, including almost 60 percent of the $80 billion spent on publicly and privately operated state penitentiaries.[2] There is widespread variation in policies and operational practices throughout the system, contributing to inefficiencies and poor outcomes. For instance, more than two thirds of inmates are re-arrested and re-incarcerated within three years of their release, placing a great burden on law enforcement and judicial systems. [3] Since states play a leading role in corrections, governors have an opportunity to promote positive change throughout the criminal-justice system, working in collaboration with other federal, state, and local leaders. Strategies that could help with such efforts include the following:

  • Increasing transparency throughout the fragmented criminal-justice system
  • Using advanced analytics to obtain insights about variations in costs and outcomes
  • Creating funding models that promote accountability

Increasing Transparency

The fragmentation of the criminal justice system is immense. Consider, for instance, the different agencies and jurisdictions that could be involved in policing (at the federal, state, or local level), pre-trial incarceration in city or county jails, grand-jury meetings, criminal court hearings and sentencing, plea bargaining, probation, or post-conviction incarceration at private or public facilities, parole-board hearings, parole oversight, and educational and vocational programming for prisoners (both during incarceration and following release).

Since different parts of the system operate independently, they may overlook desired system-level outcomes. For example, police departments may encourage strict enforcement and high arrest rates, but they may not fully account for the costs that arrests impose on the judicial and corrections systems.  Similarly, parts of the judicial and corrections system may not fully appreciate how their decisions affect the conditions in which police officers operate. If all stakeholders better understand how one branch of the criminal justice system can affect others, including public safety, they could make more informed operational decisions. Greater transparency would also help promote collaboration among federal, state, and local agencies.

As a first step to a more unified system, governors could commission their Department of Justice, Department of Corrections and other agencies to create a framework for improving policy development and operations throughout the system. Depending on government needs and priorities, this framework could include a description of the goals and outcomes for the system as a whole, or a map that shows how one group’s policies or processes may affect other groups. Other topics that may be addressed include health and human services issues, recommendations for policy changes, and identification of pain points where decisions made by one group or jurisdiction may undermine targeted outcomes for the system as a whole.

Using Advanced Analytics

The scale and complexity of the criminal justice system means that policies and practices, such as those related to policing strategies or sentencing guidelines, differ significantly by organization and location. Even operational decisions, including protocols for segregating inmates, lack uniformity. As a consequence, costs and outcomes often vary significantly. But it is difficult to make objective and fact-based comparisons that would help identify best practices for the following reasons:

  • The mix of violent and non-violent crime differs significantly by geographic, region, prison, and oversight body
  • Demographic factors, including socioeconomic differences, can affect outcomes, confound objective comparisons, and polarize stakeholder.
  • Data is fragmented across agencies, rather than consolidated in a central location; some critical information is also difficult to locate and not reported systematically

Governors are in a unique position to commission the creation of a rigorous fact base to support policy making and improve performance management of both public and private-sector participants in the criminal justice system. They can accomplish this by locating important data, building analytical models, and conducting analyses that provide information about benefits that could be obtained by changing policies or operational procedures.

Some states have already begun using advanced data analytics, including the 17 involved with the Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI), sponsored by the Bureau of Justice Assistance, which provides technical assistance to states and localities as they collect and analyze data about crime and criminal-justice costs. The JRI then helps states implement changes to increase efficiencies and reduce recidivism. For example, in North Carolina, the JRI helped develop a set of policy options designed to address gaps in the state's sentencing, supervision and treatment systems. Early results suggest that the JRI may have helped the prison population decline almost 5.6 percent between December 2011 and June 2013.[4]

Creating Incentive Models that Promote Accountability

Within the criminal justice system, there are few financial incentives designed to improve the performance of specific tasks; it is even more unusual to see incentives that are intended to promote better system-wide outcomes. For instance, prisons typically receive a set amount of funding each year, regardless of the recidivism rate. This means that those prisons that successfully reduce recidivism are not rewarded with more money for educational or vocational programs that could bring the rate down even further. Meanwhile, those prisons with high recidivism rates have no financial incentive to improve, since their funding will remain unchanged no matter how many inmates become repeat offenders.

Non-economic incentives are also misaligned with overall goals of the system. For example, overburdened courts with a backlog of cases may feel accountable to move cases along as quickly as possible. However, they may not be accountable for the impact of increased operational efficiency on downstream costs or outcomes. In some cases, nonviolent offenders may be encouraged to accept a plea bargain in which they admit to a felony, rather than going to trial where they might be convicted of a misdemeanor. Their felony offender status may then have lifelong implications for employment and public aid.

To counter these problems, states can sponsor changes in financial and non-financial incentives to create accountability for low performance and reward exceptional results. By doing so, they may shift resources to support policies and programs that show a strong track record. Such an incentive system could involve prioritizing effective interventions, shifting funding levels to influence performance, and creating performance-based incentives.

[1] U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics: Justice Expenditure and Employment Extracts, 2010.

[2] U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics: Justice Expenditure and Employment Extracts, 2010.

[3] U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics: Prisoners in 2011.

[4] JRI Case Study: North Carolina, Urban Institute, urban.org.

Benjamin Cheatham is a senior partner in McKinsey’s Philadelphia office and David Nuzum is a senior partner in the Washington, D.C. office.

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