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10 Ways States Can Lower Crime (CSG, 2023) 

01-27-2023 08:23 AM

1) Prevention is the best medicine.

Why: Roughly half of violent crimes are never reported to law enforcement. This is why we have to invest in a wide range of prevention programs that have been proven to be effective at reducing violence. Prevention offers the highest return on investment, but those returns take time to come to fruition.1  

What: Develop and fund a statewide crime-prevention strategy. There must be a solid, data-driven set of investments that match local needs. 

How: At the direction of the legislature, researchers in Washington State compiled the available evidence on crime prevention programs to identify the most cost-effective ones. The state uses the findings to guide investments. Your state can as well: 

2) Deter crime by making accountability more certain, not more severe.

Why: Research clearly shows that higher odds of being caught deter crime more than longer punishment.2 This means that a dollar spent on increasing the likelihood of being arrested for committing a crime does far more to reduce crime than a dollar spent to incarcerate someone longer.  

  • Rates of arrest for crime have been falling in recent years. The overwhelming majority of people who commit violent crime are not arrested. Nationally, people literally get away with murder about half the time.3 Look at the data on arrests for violent crime in your state. In states such as Ohio and Mississippi, only 28 percent of violent crimes were cleared by arrests or other means in 2021. 

What: State leaders can deter crime by providing law enforcement with the resources they need to investigate crimes, make arrests, and secure convictions. States can support research-based, focused-deterrence policing strategies that work with the people and places most at risk of crime and victimization. 

How: In 2012, Oklahoma created the Safe Oklahoma Grant Program to fund local strategies to reduce violent crime. Ohio recently invested $10 million in crime labs to reduce backlogs and speed up investigations.4 Utah established a statewide cold case unit in 2018 to help solve more homicide cases.5  

3) Equip people with skills to make better choices.  

Why: People aren’t inherently criminal or not. Human behavior is a product of the conditions people find themselves in and the choices they make about how to act.  

  • Accountability is important for many reasons, but on its own is insufficient to change behavior. For example, for people dealing with addictions who have friends involved in crime and have limited options, solely imposing more consequences is not enough. 
  • Cognitive behavioral interventions help people learn skills to change how they respond to decisions and make better choices. Programs that include cognitive behavioral strategies are far more successful at helping people change their behavior. 

What: State leaders need to ensure that cognitive behavioral interventions are being used in all programs aimed at reducing recidivism, from substance use and mental health treatment to supervision and more. And leaders need to measure and close the gap between the need for these programs and their availability across communities. 

How: Idaho leaders overhauled programs aimed at reducing recidivism among people in state prison after an in-depth review found that three-quarters of the program curricula being used were outdated or were no longer considered to be the most effective. State leaders halted the ineffective programs and reinvested funding in evidence-based ones. 

4) Make the most of probation.

Why: Some crimes (an estimated 1 in 10 violent felonies) are committed by people already involved in the justice system who are under probation supervision.6 Too often, probation systems are under-resourced and do not use data-driven practices to reach their potential to reduce recidivism. Done right, probation can increase safety and accountability at a fraction of the cost of incarceration. 

What: States can reform probation policies and practices to focus supervision resources on people who are most likely to reoffend and orient probation officers to help people change their behavior. In many states, current practices create a massive net of lengthy supervision terms that increases jail and prison populations by incarcerating people for technical violations, such as missed appointments, who otherwise pose a low risk.

How: Starting in 2008, Arizona strengthened probation practices—policies, training, and hiring—and saw 17 percent fewer felony crimes among people on probation by 2017. Taxpayers saved an estimated $461 million in averted costs from a 31 percent drop in prison admissions for supervision violations.

5) Modernize parole policies to increase the cost-effectiveness of incarceration.

Why: The practices of many parole boards are antiquated, unclear, and opaque. Without accurately assessing risk to public safety and what can reduce that risk, parole boards are more likely to hold people in prison longer than needed at a huge cost to taxpayers and release other people too soon or without the right level of supervision and services to protect public safety upon release.  

What: States need to modernize parole systems by using accurate assessments of people’s risk to reoffend, having clear guidelines for when people will be released, and high-quality supervision and services in place to reduce recidivism.   

How: Since 2005, Michigan’s parole and reentry processes have become increasingly data driven by using assessments of risk, violence, and program completion to drive release decisions. Combined with an investment in community-based reentry services and evidence-based supervision strategies, the percentage of people on parole convicted of new crimes within 3 years dropped by 50 percent (from 21.3 percent for people released in 2006 to just 10.6 percent for those released in 2018).7 The improved outcomes helped reduce the prison population and costs for taxpayers.

6) Enlist health, education, labor, and housing agencies to help reduce recidivism and strengthen communities.

Why: “Corrections can’t reduce recidivism alone.” That’s what we hear from leaders who are charged with running state prisons and supervision systems.  

  • People who are most likely to reoffend and be reincarcerated also often face the greatest challenges in securing stable housing, employment, education, and health care. 
  • The neighborhoods that send the highest proportion of people to prison and jail often have the fewest resources available to support those people’s successful reintegration when they return. 

What: At the state and local levels, leaders in health, education, labor, and housing agencies should partner with justice agencies to ensure that people and communities that experience high rates of justice involvement are assisted with intensive and research-backed strategies to meet their needs.  

  • Coordination between agencies is critical to enabling the justice system’s efforts to change people’s behavior, reduce recidivism, and make neighborhoods safe. 

How: Alabama leaders established a Commission on Reentry in 20218 to coordinate and focus state resources to reduce recidivism and connect people to jobs and needed services. The Commission includes legislators, justice leaders, and cabinet-level officials from labor, Medicaid, veteran’s affairs, and the governor’s office. 

7) Address trauma to prevent trauma.  

Why: Trauma is a cycle. It shapes peoples’ responses, understanding, and expectations, which perpetuates offending and victimization.9

  • Ensuring that individuals experiencing trauma are connected to relevant support and resources is critical to break the cycles of violence and distress that are so much larger than what the justice system can address alone. 

What: State leaders should invest resources to meet the needs of victims regardless of whether they report crimes.   

  • Ensure immediate financial needs can be met by victim compensation programs and emergency financial assistance. 
  • Take past trauma into account at sentencing, while people are in custody and on supervision.  
  • Work to reduce and address trauma and improve well-being for staff in law enforcement and corrections.  

How: Missouri reduced the administrative burden for victims applying for reimbursement for eligible expenses. The state also allowed victims who receive medical forensic exams to qualify for the program without additional law enforcement involvement.10  Washington State, Massachusetts,11 and Iowa set aside grant funding for crime victim services through community organizations by and for historically marginalized populations to serve people not currently accessing emergency services. 

8) Quality matters.

Why: Programs don’t work; high-quality programs work. Providing treatment and programming without monitoring their quality is like providing water without testing to make sure it’s safe to drink.  

What: State and local leaders need to ensure that they are investing wisely in quality programming and treatment. Providing people with the right combination of services isn’t enough to improve public safety or health outcomes; the services delivered must be high quality, research based, and tailored to each person’s needs.  

How: A study on Ohio correctional programs in 2011 found that high-quality programs could reduce recidivism by 50 percent, while the lowest quality programs increased recidivism by 32 percent.12 Ohio now requires state-funded programs to use evidence-based practices and regularly conducts audits and evaluations.

9) Safety and justice deserve better data.

Why: Data on crime, arrests, backlogs, and punishment are hard to get. Nearly 40 percent of law enforcement agencies failed to report crime data in 2021.13 You can’t fix what you don’t measure. See which agencies in your state failed to report data in 2021.

  • Racial inequities usually accumulate as people proceed further into the system; bringing data together from across justice agencies is critical to diagnosing what is exacerbating disparities. 
  • Despite an increasing focus on improving reentry outcomes, only half of states report data on outcomes for the millions of people sentenced to probation supervision.

What: Collect, analyze, and report data as aggressively as the issues demand.  

How: Enlist your state in joining the Justice Counts initiative, a nationwide coalition of state and local agencies adopting a common set of metrics to provide key insights on system trends, operations, and outcomes across all criminal justice sectors. 

10) Turn silos into a system.  

Why: The criminal justice “system” is a collection of independent justice agencies with different goals, funding, and lines of accountability. Without functional ways of coming together and meaningfully coordinating and collaborating at the local and state levels, there won’t be a justice system.  

What: Every state needs a well-staffed and engaged collaborative body that brings agencies together to establish priorities, share data, and coordinate responses.

How: Connecticut established a criminal justice policy and planning agency to spearhead the collection and analysis of data across criminal justice agencies and convene an interagency commission to review and develop data-driven strategies to improve safety and justice.14 

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