Criminal Justice

Reform in the States: A Survey of Success

November 5, 2015

This panel highlighted state-level sentencing and corrections reform successes that can act as models for other states considering criminal justice reform, or even for the federal government.

Texas Public Policy Foundation senior fellow Jerry Madden started off by recounting the work that has been done in Texas. He emphasized the ability of state-level reforms to lead the way and the importance of ensuring that all voices and all interests are represented in order to achieve meaningful change. He cautioned audience members to avoid reinventing the wheel, encouraging them to look at what other states have done.

Jim Seward, general counsel to the governor of South Dakota, described that in 2012, prior to reform, 82 percent of newly admitted South Dakota prisoners were being incarcerated for nonviolent offenses. Since then, South Dakota has passed 30 policy reforms, including ones aimed at reducing some criminal penalties, investing in alternatives to incarceration, providing greater support to mental health and addiction services, and investing in re-entry services for released prisoners. Now, South Dakota’s prison population is declining.

Andrew Page, manager of state policy for the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Public Safety Performance Project, described the work he does to help states diagnose the drivers of their prison population and implement reforms grounded in “justice reinvestment,” an approach that uses data to identify policy solutions that reserve prison space primarily for serious, violent offenders and applies the savings to improving alternatives for lower-level offenders.

Jenna Moll, deputy director of the U.S. Justice Action Network, noted that bipartisan work has fueled many of the state-level reforms. She also pointed out the importance of continually assessing drivers of incarceration in states and taking snapshots of the system in order to determine whether reforms are achieving their intended goals.

Kevin Kane, president of Louisiana’s Pelican Institute, moderated the panel and concluded the discussion by asking panelists to note the challenges they experienced after implementing reforms. Their responses included: ensuring the proper implementation of reform packages, gathering the data needed to determine whether reforms are effective, and summoning the courage to make further changes when reforms are not successful. To learn more about supporting these needs, please visit the Charles Koch Foundation’s Request for Proposals page.