Is reform a means to cut the budget or is cutting the budget a means to reform?
It’s like which came first–the chicken or the egg?
For Georgia, I think money is part of the equation, and ultimately becomes part of the outcome, but it’s definitely not the primary objective despite it’s appearance.
In times of economic woe, one does not increase those woes with added fiscal burdens. A financial crisis is an easy out for any governor or lawmaker to avoid unwanted legislation.
Instead of the road of least resistance, Georgia’s Gov. Nathan Deal chose the road less traveled and established a Criminal Justice Reform Council of multi-disciplinary members to study the juvenile justice system and recommend reforms to improve the system.
For politicians, bureaucrats and economists the chicken or the egg dilemma translates as a desired outcome that is impossible to reach because a necessary precondition is not satisfied, while to meet that precondition in turn requires that the desired outcome has already been realized.
When translated to juvenile justice this means the desired outcome is to reduce recidivism, but that requires fewer commitments of nonviolent kids to residential and secure facilities, and that cannot be met until communities are infused with evidence-informed programs, and that takes money.
Economists call this a vicious circle – a complex chain of events that reinforces itself through a feedback loop with detrimental results. For example, many systems have unwittingly created a pipeline of committing non-violent kids to residential and secure facilities because the funding for community treatment programs that work for these kids are too little or non-existent in the community.
Judges are confronted with a no-win scenario and commitment becomes a default decision. This default decision-making over the years creates a feedback loop because the more kids committed, the more money is required to support the default decisions to commit.
I call this hyper-recidivism – when an individual or system responds to an offender in a manner that exacerbates the offender’s risk to re-offend. For example, many studies have shown that treating low-risk youth using punitive and intensive treatment increases their risk to re-offend. When systems allow low-risk kids to be treated harshly, it’s the system increasing recidivism and making the community less safe.
Any vicious circle producing hyper-recidivism will continue its momentum until an external factor intervenes and breaks the cycle. When this occurs, a virtuous circle is created instead that replaces the feedback loop with positive results – a reduction in recidivism. The external factor required to break this vicious cycle in any juvenile justice system is political will. Court of Appeals Judge Michael Boggs, co-chair of the reform council here in Georgia, aptly described it as a perfect storm – a coming together of several factors including a governor with experience on the juvenile court bench, legislators (Jay Neal, Wendell Williard, Mary Margaret Oliver and Charlie Bethel to name a few) with a passion for helping save troubled kids, a Chief Justice – Carol Hunstein – dedicated to equity and fairness, and a state bar involved in reform for several years.
Political will begins the break-through process and sustains it. But the break doesn’t come until a plan is developed to replace the vicious circle. The devil is always in the details – and those details came from the Pew Charitable Trust. That organization not only accessed the data, but mined it deep, giving us a description of the kids we are committing. The picture was not pretty. More than 50 percent of those committed were nonviolent and 65 percent were adjudicated on new charges within three years.
These nonviolent kids were taking up unnecessary beds at a cost of up to $90,000 annually. Consequently, low-risk kids are manufactured to become hardened criminals like a car on an assembly line – thus creating a feedback loop producing hyper-recidivism.
Breaking this vicious loop requires that the funds used to house low-risk kids be reallocated to local communities, and that can’t occur unless drastic steps are taken to stop the commitment of these kids – and that’s what happened in Georgia.
The key to breaking a vicious loop that spends money on incarcerating nonviolent youth is to prohibit the incarceration of low-risk kids and create a virtuous loop by re-directing the cost savings to the judges for evidence informed programs to keep these kids in the community.
I am not sure which came first — using system reform to cut the budget or cutting the budget to reform the system. But I am convinced that, like the chicken and the egg, you can’t have one without the other. Changing laws to save kids from incarceration will solve half the problem, which is no solution at all. The tougher question is what will you do with the money saved?
Will the solution be vicious or virtuous?