Report and Briefing Put Spotlight on Justice Reinvestment: The Delaware Model

NEW YORK—When Delaware Governor Jack Markell convened the Justice Reinvestment Task Force in the summer of 2011, the state was facing a high rate of violent crime, crowded prisons, and budget shortfalls. By the time he signed the Justice Reinvestment Act (Senate Bill 226) in August 2012, Delaware had joined a growing number of states committed to instituting what’s called justice reinvestment—a data-driven approach to corrections policy that seeks to cut spending and reinvest savings in practices that can improve public safety and strengthen neighborhoods.

“We owe it to Delawareans to ensure that our criminal justice spending is wisely invested to have the biggest impact on public safety,” said Governor Markell. “If we can properly allocate that spending to focus on programming that reduces recidivism and prevents future crime we can have a significant impact on the safety of our communities.”

A new policy brief, Justice Reinvestment in Action: The Delaware Model, from the Vera Institute of Justice was released today at a Senate Law Enforcement Caucus briefing, hosted by U.S. Senators Chris Coons and Roy Blunt, co-chairs of the caucus. The report examines the first phase of Delaware’s reform efforts—from the findings and recommendations of the task force to the major provisions of the legislation—which were undertaken with the support of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, a project sponsored by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance. At the request of state leaders, Vera’s Center for Sentencing and Corrections has been providing technical assistance throughout the process.

“Many thanks to the Vera Institute of Justice and the Delaware Justice Reinvestment Task Force for their hard work in producing this important report,” Senator Coons said. “The release of this report marks an important step forward in making scientific, data-driven reforms to our criminal justice system that will break down silos to improve public safety. These reforms will make our justice system more efficient and effective, reduce costs, and save lives.”

Because Delaware is a unified system—one of only a handful in which the state has custody of both pretrial and sentenced populations—its justice reinvestment work is relevant not only to other states, but also to local jurisdictions, which typically are responsible for jail populations. At the briefing, attendees had the opportunity to hear about the on-the-ground experience with JRI in both Delaware and Kentucky.

JRI is administered by the Bureau of Justice Assistance at the U.S. Department of Justice, in partnership with independent organizations like Vera, the Council of State Governments Justice Center, and the Public Safety Performance Project of the Pew Center on the States.

The legislation was the result of eight months of intensive study by the Delaware Justice Reinvestment Task Force, a bipartisan group of legislators, judges, representatives from the state prosecutor's and public defender's offices, law enforcement officials, and corrections agency officials convened by Governor Jack Markell to conduct a comprehensive review of the state's criminal justice system.

The task force found that three major factors sustain Delaware’s prison population: the high rate of pretrial detention, probation revocations as a result of violations, and long prison stays. Based on these findings, the Sentencing and Corrections Center at Vera helped the task force develop a policy framework to address these drivers and ensure that scarce justice resources are used to reduce recidivism and enhance public safety.

“Vera is pleased to have provided technical assistance to Delaware, Kentucky, and other states as part of JRI,” said Peggy McGarry, director of Vera’s Center on Sentencing and Corrections. “It is rewarding to see the fruits of Delaware’s Justice Reinvestment Task Force translated into policies that ensure that scarce justice resources are used to reduce recidivism and enhance public safety.”

As outlined in the policy brief, legislators translated these recommendations into Delaware Senate Bill 226. Among other changes, the legislation requires implementation of an objective risk assessment instrument to help magistrates make informed decisions about pretrial release; makes available objective risk and needs assessment for judges’ use in sentencing; supports improved community supervision practices; and creates incentives for individuals who are incarcerated and under supervision to complete evidence-based programs designed to reduce recidivism. Strong bipartisan leadership led to the near unanimous passage of the legislation, which Governor Markell signed on August 8, 2012.

Speakers at the briefing included U.S. Senator Coons from Delaware; Drew Fennell, executive director of the Criminal Justice Council of Delaware; Col. Thomas MacLeish, director of the Delaware Statistical Analysis Center and former superintendent of the Delaware State Police; Alison Shames, associate director of Vera’s Center on Sentencing and Corrections; and Representative John Tilley from Kentucky House District 8.

Read policy brief