Justice System1

Inmates at the Spartanburg County Detention Center get involved in a creative writing class taught by Jonathan Burgess that is offered at the jail in Spartanburg, S.C. It is one of many efforts by prisons to reduce the number of inmates who are arrested after they leave prison. (John Byrum/The Spartanburg Herald-Journal via AP)

When a new inmate steps behind the walls of a prison in Georgia, the entirety of his or her criminal record and mental state is fed into a complex algorithm called the Next Generation Assessment.

The NGA just might be the future of America’s criminal justice system. This algorithm considers an inmate’s age at first arrest, the types of crimes he committed, his mental-health and substance-abuse history — in all, more than 300 variables about him.

It then generates a score that predicts that inmate’s risk of re-arrest within three years. This algorithm also determines needs —e.g. education, employment, and mental-health treatment — to help prison officials decide which programs in which to enroll him during incarceration. Such front-end intervention is intended to make an inmate much less likely to return to crime when he eventually is released from prison.

Although Georgia is considered a leader in this new reform movement, the NGA is one of several new tools and reforms designed to make prisons more efficient, with a goal toward reform.  After three decades of the most massive incarceration program since slavery, America appears on the precipice of a wholesale transformation of its criminal justice system.

President Barack Obama cited the “long history of inequity in the criminal justice system in America” in a July speech to the NAACP’s annual convention in Philadelphia. He said, “In too many places, black boys and black men, Latino boys and Latino men experience being treated differently under the law.”

Blacks and Latinos compose 60 percent of the U.S. inmate population, although they make up just 30 percent of the population. Typically, divergent forces across the U.S. political spectrum appear to have agreed that ongoing mass incarceration is bad for business and bad for America. Members of Congress from both sides of the aisle have begun to co-sponsor legislation to limit mass imprisonment. Also, Republican-controlled legislatures in such places as Georgia and Texas have begun to pass laws aimed at curbing prison populations.

“In years gone by, you’d see sentencing reform and they’d tweak sentencing for one or two crimes or one or two types of crime,” said Nick Wachinski, a former criminal defense attorney in Philadelphia. He now is CEO of Lexington National Insurance Corporation, which underwrites bail bonds. “Then you would see that followed up by somebody bringing a bill that would vilify some other crime — and really undo what was just done. Now I think, at the federal level and a lesser degree at the states, we’re seeing a genuine desire to look at the whole thing.”

Two factors seem to be driving this reform movement: a sense that America can no longer afford mass incarceration; and social-science data proving that inmates can be rehabilitated and steered toward redemption via education and drug-treatment programs that wind up much cheaper than repeatedly imprisoning the same offenders.

Effective intervention programs typically reduce recidivism by about 10 to 15 percent and sometimes as much as 20 percent, criminal justice analysts have found. Given America’s annual per-inmate cost of about $31,000, these programs could save hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars every year.

Mass incarceration cost the U.S. $80 billion in 2010 alone, according to federal data. “Just to put that in perspective, for $80 billion, we could have universal preschool for every 3-year-old and 4-year-old in America,” Obama said to the NAACP. “That’s what $80 billion buys. For $80 billion, we could double the salary of every high school teacher in America. For $80 billion, we could finance new roads and new bridges and new airports, job training programs, research and development . . . For what we spend to keep everyone locked up for one year, we could eliminate tuition at every single one of our public colleges and universities.”