Post-Pandemic, There’s No Excuse: America Must Modernize Its Justice System

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In the midst of a pandemic that has undoubtedly unleashed trauma and tragedy across our nation, we have seen our fellow citizens meet this tremendous challenge head-on — responding with courage, resilience and a particular type of ingenuity that is truly American.

With the help of technology, we’ve rapidly changed our habits, and businesses have swiftly transformed their operations. From remote working to grocery delivery, we’ve realized that we may never go back to doing it the old way.

For too many counties in America, our community supervision system is still operating as if it’s 1995. Nowhere should the “old way” be reexamined more than how we manage corrections and community supervision in America.

It’s an industry that has an enormous opportunity to modernize while buffering the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic – at a time when people are looking for an apolitical, common sense approach to criminal justice reform. By adopting technology-enabled solutions, agencies can dramatically improve millions of lives and save billions of tax dollars.

Recidivism rates across the nation are staggeringly high. Prisons are overcrowded because we aren’t completing rehabilitation programs or giving people the tools they need to successfully re-enter the community after incarceration. For example, the average cost per inmate in California runs about $64,642, so it’s no wonder that amidst the pandemic, the state elected to release more than 11,000 prisoners early. In Ohio, the prison system accounted for more than 20% of the state’s cases in April 2020. Ultimately, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine recommended early release for only 300 of the 49,000 total inmates. But what about the rest? Many of the California individuals who were released had the opportunity to reintegrate into their communities sooner than expected and without sufficient monitoring or rehabilitation resources. But what resources were in place to ensure they got the help they needed to stay on the right track? If Ohio had more resources, could the state have elected to release more prisoners amidst the pandemic? If other agencies want to follow California’s footsteps, how do they manage the influx of caseloads to supervising officers?

Recent proposed budget cuts in California counties include reducing thousands of jobs, reducing homeless outreach services, and cutting community partnerships. Furthermore, enforcement activities look to be on the chopping block. Sadly, defunding the police will result in fewer community-based and community-oriented resources at a time when states like California need them the most.

States across the nation are experiencing the full impact of the pandemic on the prison system. Most importantly, the Coronavirus pandemic shed light on many departments’ urgent need to reduce the number of incarcerated people. Not long ago, Ohio’s prisons were operating at 132 percent of capacity, with roughly 50,440 people incarcerated at an average cost of $27,761 per inmate annually. Iowa hit its highest prison population in eight years – with high recidivism rates strongly contributing to this number. In states like Illinois where the prison population has declined, the General Funds expenditures on the Illinois Department of Corrections have increased by approximately 22% over the past ten years. With these staggeringly high costs and increasing recidivism rates, we must ask ourselves: Why are people going back to prison?

There are 2.3 million people in prison in America and two-thirds of them have been there before. They’re going back again and again because we’re stuck in the previous decade. Those responsible for overseeing the wellbeing of our most vulnerable communities are not giving people the support and tools they need to overcome drug addiction, mental illness, the needed skills to find work, or the lack of job opportunities due to their criminal record. There are science-backed, academically validated approaches to using tech to improve outcomes. And the pandemic comes at a time when people are clamoring for solutions to both law and order and criminal justice reform. We are at a remarkable inflection point.

As people ask questions such as, “Why visit an office building when you can speak to your therapist via FaceTime?” or “How much time, energy and money can be saved by going virtual?” we must also ask, “How can we apply tech to criminal justice reform?” The response to COVID-19 proves how technology can be more efficient, less invasive, and provide life skills to long-term success.

Finding a solution to America’s high recidivism rates requires departments to completely re-think their processes. As a matter of both public safety and the betterment of our communities, modern community supervision resources are an essential part of the process to rehabilitating individuals and reducing recidivism. When it comes to community supervision, the solution is simple: stop over-supervising those who are in compliance, and instead, allow supervising officers to focus their attention on the small number of individuals who actually need the careful oversight. With budgets at risk, a new wave of evidence-based tech, and increasing political pressures, now is the time to modernize the criminal justice system through solutions that will not only save agencies time and resources, but improve lives across America.

Commentary by Michael Hirschman, CEO of TRACKtech LLC.

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