Public Policy Forum Blog

Doling out justice more efficiently

Amid all the concern about government budget woes both nationally and locally, good news is emerging about the ability of some governments to respond by pursuing greater efficiencies.

A recent example comes from Philadelphia, where the Inquirer reports the city expects to save $9 million this year in incarceration costs from "what appear to be groundbreaking changes in the way courts and prisons operate."

Admittedly, some of the savings will come from changes in state law that simply shift costs from the city budget to the state corrections budget. A sizable portion, however, comes from relatively simple changes in court processing procedures, as well as from data-driven strategies aimed at reducing the number of prisoners in the city jail who are awaiting hearings and pose little threat to the community.

Indeed, budget crises are forcing state and local governments across the country to take a renewed look at corrections budgets and policies. Last month, the Pew Center on the States reported that the 2010 state prison population declined for the first time in 38 years, in part because "several states have enacted reforms designed to get taxpayers a better return on their public safety dollars."

Of course, strategies to reduce corrections populations as a means of alleviating budget difficulties often are challenged on the grounds that they compromise public safety. That has been the case here in Wisconsin, where an early-release program passed by the Legislature last year continues to stir controversy.

Yet, no matter where one falls on the spectrum of law and order policy, perhaps all can agree that it makes sense to use data-driven tools and analysis to seek efficiencies in all aspects of the criminal justice system, from bail policies to diversion practices to processing procedures.

Just such a bipartisan effort has been initiated locally by the Milwaukee County Community Justice Council, which includes both the county executive and mayor, as well as other key justice officials with different political viewpoints. A new jail population analysis conducted by the Pretrial Justice Institute on the Council's behalf takes a comprehensive look at who is in the Milwaukee County jail, how long they stay there, and how they leave. It is seen by the Council as a critical first step in a larger strategic planning effort geared toward more cost-efficient and effective jail population management.

There's no doubt the economic downturn has caused real pain for government budgets and programs and the citizens who count on them. But if it also has instilled a lasting desire among government officials to work across jurisdictional and political boundaries in search of business practice improvements, then that pain will be a little easier to bear.

Rob Henken