10 Questions | U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse
U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a former Rhode Island attorney general,
has seen how using a data-driven approach can cut corrections costs
for states. He’s pushing a bill to give grants to help states and localities
better manage prison spending.
1 What are your goals in sponsoring the Criminal Justice Reinvestment Act in the U.S. Senate?
“I sponsored the Criminal Justice Reinvestment Act with Senator John Cornyn (of Texas) and Senator Patrick Leahy (of Vermont) to help states and localities determine how best to manage the growth in prison and jail populations and increase public safety. The legislation would authorize grants to analyze criminal justice trends and to design and implement policies to better manage prison spending.”
2 How does Justice Reinvestment work?
“Justice reinvestment is a data-driven approach to understand what factors are driving the growth in prison and jail populations, develop and implement policy changes to address those trends, and then measure the impact of those policy changes.”
3 How will the program help states analyze criminal justice trends and develop policy solutions?
“The Criminal Justice Reinvestment Act would create a two-part grant program to allow state and local jurisdictions to examine what is contributing to the rising costs of incarceration and the expansion of inmate populations, and design and implement solutions unique to each corrections system. Through Phase 1 grants, government entities would be able to conduct a comprehensive analysis of corrections data, evaluate the cost-effectiveness of state and local spending on corrections, and develop policy options suggested by the analysis. Phase 2 grants would provide funds to help government entities implement those policy options and to measure their effectiveness.”
4 What is the status of the Act?
“In March, the Criminal Justice Reinvestment Act was reported out of the Senate Judiciary Committee with strong bipartisan support. A hearing also was held recently by our colleagues in the House that reflected their broad support for the legislation.”
5 Why do you believe it is important for the federal government to get involved in this issue to help states?
“Most policymakers, unfortunately, have limited access to detailed, data-driven explanations about changes in crime, arrest, conviction, and prison and jail population trends. But we in the federal government have the tools at our disposal to support states and local governments seeking solutions to their corrections problems. This bill requires a relatively small investment by the federal government to help improve corrections systems nationwide, and to resolve the conundrum of communities whose tight year-to-year budgeting prevents them from making the initial investments that can lead to future taxpayer savings.”
6 As a former attorney general, how do you think the rise in corrections spending affects criminal justice systems overall?
“Over 2.2 million American adults are presently incarcerated in state and local prisons and jails, at a rate of about 1 in every 100 adults. State spending on corrections has increased over $40 billion in the last 20 years, up over 30 percent in the past 10 years alone. At the same time, nearly half the states were forced to cut their corrections appropriations this fiscal year due to shrinking budgets. The combination of growing prison populations, rising costs and budget shortfalls is unsustainable in the long term, and in the short term tends to prejudice programs like re-entry support that are important to public safety.”
7 Rhode Island has seen some successes with justice reinvestment. What has worked in your home state?
“Just a few years ago, the trends for growth in
the Rhode Island corrections system mirrored the national trends. The Rhode Island corrections system ran a comprehensive analysis of prison data to diagnose the drivers of growth. This in turn prompted statewide, bipartisan legislation
to, among other things, standardize the use of risk assessments to inform parole release decisions. Now, the growth of Rhode Island’s incarcerated population is stabilizing. This is a great achievement and a testament to how a simple starting point—looking at data to learn what causes prison growth—can lead to agreement on substantial and much-needed change.”
8 How do we know that justice reinvestment approaches can be successful in other states?
“Model programs in several states have proved that this data-driven approach effectively manages the costs of a growing inmate population. As discussed, Rhode Island enjoyed success by changing its parole calculations. In Texas, the solution was much different but equally effective—following its analysis, the state invested $227 million on treatment programs and residential facilities to curb population growth, which averted spending $523 million on new prisons. In Vermont, data analysis showed that a significant factor in prison growth was reincarceration of former prisoners, which prompted the Vermont legislature to expand substance abuse resources and increase supervision of the highest-risk parolees.”
9 What other criminal justice issues is the U.S. Senate exploring that affect state governments?
“The Senate Judiciary Committee is considering a number of bills that affect states, such as the COPS Improvements Act of 2009, which I have co-sponsored.” (This bill would extend funding for Community Oriented Policing Services to 2014 and expand the authority of the attorney general to make grants for public safety and community policing programs.)
10 CSG is holding its annual meeting in Providence, R.I., in December. What are some things those in attendance should not miss out on while in the area?
“Rhode Island is a beautiful state with an abundance of things to see and do despite its small size. I’d particularly recommend strolling Providence’s beautifully preserved historic districts, visiting the Rhode Island School of Design museum, eating a great Italian meal up on Federal Hill, and catching WaterFire, an award-winning sculpture on the river or a show at Trinity Repertory Company.”