Reflections on the Justice Reinvestment National Summit

I’m a little jet-lagged today. I got back home to Durham early this morning after a long flight. I was attending the Justice Reinvestment National Summit . . . in San Diego. Poor baby! Suffice it to say, the winter weather that gripped the East Coast this week did not extend to Southern California. I won’t lie, it was beautiful. But I promise the lovely setting did not stand in the way of a productive gathering. I want to use today’s post to offer a few reflections on the conference.

NC_delegationJustice Reinvestment is a big thing, and North Carolina is a big part of it. Delegations from 35 states attended the conference, which was jointly hosted by the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Bureau of Justice Assistance, and the Council of State Governments Justice Center (the principal architects of North Carolina’s Justice Reinvestment Act). North Carolina had one of the largest—if not the largest—state delegations at the summit, with representation from corrections, the legislature, two judges, a prosecutor, the N.C. Sheriffs’ Association, and the School of Government.

Your work was highlighted—mostly accurately. Walking into the main conference hall, conventioneers were greeted by a large infographic poster featuring North Carolina (I’m standing next to it in the picture above). The work that many readers of this blog are doing every day in our post-JRA world was a focal point—and at more than a surface level. Words like “CRV,” “terminal dunk,” “quick dip,” and “90-96” were part of the discussion, as other jurisdictions look carefully at our experience. A report entitled Justice Reinvestment in North Carolina: Three Years Later, and a collection of the state’s performance measures related to Justice Reinvestment were made available. Both documents are worth a look.

Politics. The conference did not shy away from the political realities associated with criminal justice reform. Assistant Attorney General (and Tar Heel!) Karol Mason applauded the work done so far and, among other things, encouraged participants to extend it into the world of juvenile justice. Conservative thinker Grover Norquist cited “Texas” as the one-word antidote to being outflanked from the right on criminal justice reform. If Lone Star legislators could reduce their prison population without being painted as soft on crime, so can you. Former New York Times and current Marshall Project editor Bill Keller moderated a panel on criminal justice in the media. Best line, paraphrased: Lots of criminal justice journalism is nonprofit—but not on purpose. And what was pitched as a debate between former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and civil rights activist Van Jones was dominated by agreement that Justice Reinvestment was move in the right direction toward innovative criminal justice reform.

Crime rates. I was a little bit surprised by the extent to which crime rates were discussed and featured at the conference. Take a closer look at that infographic linked above. No font is larger than the one used to highlight the 11 percent drop in North Carolina’s crime rate and the 50 percent drop in probation revocations. To be fair, it’s just an infographic—it’s not intended to be a rigorous analysis of the data. Nevertheless, I think there’s some risk in even hinting at a causative relationship between Justice Reinvestment reforms and recidivism and crime rate data that largely predate the defendant population affected by the legislation. And of course the revocation rate dropped: the legislation made it illegal to revoke probation for most violations! (The infographic does not note the kabillion percent increase in CRVs since 2011.) But I’m no criminologist. And this is just a blog!

As readers know, the School of Government is Switzerland when it comes to the policies behind Justice Reinvestment and its results. We do not advocate; we are here to help you understand what the law is, and how to apply it correctly. That said, I don’t mind telling you that it was a pleasure to see the energy and thoughtfulness of North Carolina’s summit delegation. They were proud to highlight North Carolina’s results, but also honest about them, and eager to learn from other jurisdictions about what might be improved. I thank them for letting me participate—and not just because it was 70 degrees and sunny the entire time.