At long last, almost everyone seems to agree that the criminal justice system needs to be cut.
With spending over $260 billion — 3.5 times higher than the 1980 total for corrections, and 4.5 times higher for police — the system just seems like a big bloated mess. Heightened awareness after the deaths of Freddie Gray, Michael Brown and other black men allegedly killed by police officers have put the front line on notice — but prisons and courts have come under scrutiny too. With their first glance at the system, politicians of all stripes have highlighted and underlined the same item on their agendas: Cut criminal justice spending.
That's important, but it doesn't reckon fully with reality: Some of the gravest problems facing the justice system are areas of neglect and underfunding, not overspending.
If you really want to fix the injustices in the system, you'll actually need to increase spending in some places, at least in the short term. These areas run the gamut from food and health care for inmates, to staffing and retirement benefits for prison staff.
Most crucially forgotten, though, are two issues that are tragically buckling under the weight of increased demand and long-term neglect. While funds always seemed to be available to break ground on a new cell block, public defenders and programs tasked with preventing and punishing domestic and sexual violence were, and are, unconscionably ignored.
Though they aren't on the reform agenda, these are hardly niche areas.
Indigent defense, legal services for those who can't afford private counsel, is a constitutionally protected right at the heart of our legal system. It's also very widespread — about 80 percent of people charged with a crime are eligible for public counsel — and very broken. Experts, including the Department of Justice itself, can't seem to decide if "scandal," "disaster," or "state of crisis" is the best description of the system.
Given how spending on police and prisons boomed but spending on public defense did not, it's no surprise that there are now far too many cases for far too few public defenders. When arguing those cases, public defenders are also at a severe disadvantage: Public defense is funded at one-third the level of the prosecution. As a result, public defenders are overworked, underpaid, and regularly unable to fulfill the needs, or constitutional rights, of their clients. Rather than attempting to fix this fundamental injustice and inequality, though, more than half of states have actually decreased spending on indigent defense in the last five years (nationwide spending has decreased too).
This isn't just a problem for the accused, it's a problem for anyone who wants to decrease overall incarceration. As David Carroll explained at The Marshall Project, underfunding public defenders is an "underlying ailment" in the criminal justice system. Without public defenders balancing out the system's zeal to incarcerate, he says, "well-meaning advocacy…will result in half-measures and unsustainable policies." Some decriminalization will lessen the load on public defense systems, but not nearly to the required degree, given the reform movement's focus on low-level offenders.
The nation's historical approach to domestic, sexual, and intimate partner violence presents a similar negligence. Where spending on other enforcement areas skyrocketed with mass incarceration, funding for violence prevention and enforcement remained at embarrassingly low levels.
Consider the Office of Violence Against Women (OVW), the largest single government body targeting "the crimes of intimate partner violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking." Since its creation 20 years ago, the OVW has administered just over $5 billion in grants; the Drug Enforcement Agency spends this amount in two years. This scarcity persists despite the unacceptably high rate of intimate partner and sexual violence and the near complete impunity for these crimes.
A recent survey of service providers by the National Network to End Domestic Violence found that while demand for services has increased, federal and local funding for domestic violence programs has decreased, leading to widespread staffing cuts and even full program closures. Service providers need more money for shelters and interventions, police departments need better training on domestic and sexual violence, and new and better public service programs are required to prevent crimes. How are these issues figuring in prominent discussions of crime and criminal justice reform? Just about not at all.
But there is a simple way to address these areas that won't undercut criminal justice reformers who've honed in on wasteful spending.
Beyond simply increasing appropriations, politicians that are serious about justice, not just budgets, could establish a "reinvestment fund" as a part of reform legislation. California's Proposition 47, approved by voters last November, uses sentencing reductions and crime reclassifications to decrease prison populations and puts the related savings in a "Safe Neighborhoods and Safe Schools" fund. This type of reinvestment, rather than less politically feasible methods, ensures a direct transfer of resources to areas of need. Indigent defense, domestic and sexual violence, and prison conditions could, and should, be specified as the recipients of savings accrued from any cost-cutting legislation.
Since good legal counsel, violence prevention and enforcement, and safe prison conditions all mean long-term savings, the idea might even sound like a bargain. But getting there is going to require some funds first. After all, to get a good bargain, you still have to spend something.