Criminal justice reform

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Criminal justice reform in the US

Alabama, Pennsylvania, and Virginia have made large new budgetary infusions to their respective departments of corrections with the express intention of improving inmate release outcomes. Kentucky and North Dakota have not allocated new funds, but each state is engaged in innovative reforms that affect its prisoners and those prisoners' parole and probation programs. The list below is presented in no particular order.


A federal report, found here, identified the states implementing innovative criminal justice reforms. We followed up on the report's list by looking for large investments or reforms particularly in parole or probation programs by these states. The reasoning behind each state's inclusion has been listed in the first paragraph of each section.


In 2017 the funding for the Alabama Prison system was $38,118,000. In 2018, the funding was $63,794,000, an increase of $25,676,000 in a single year. This extraordinary increase in funding is why Alabama was selected for this list.

Some new money was funneled into the following programs directly related to parole and probation. There was $60,000 allocated for a pilot program to address recidivism in female parolees and ex-offenders. Another $60,000 was allocated for a pilot program to assist parolees to start small businesses.

The parole board received a budget of $18.5 million. Its 7 mandates include workforce increases and caseload caps, workforce training and development, risk and needs assessments, managing parole guidelines, managing a supervision response matrix, programming and treatment, and supervising early discharge and mandatory release.


Pennsylvania's Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI) received an increase of $397,983,475 to the annual budget, jumping to $2,681,409,475 from $2,283,416,000. This large budget jump for a program narrowly aimed at post-incarceration programs earned Pennsylvania its place on this list.

Pennsylvania allocates $2,138,000 for county probation grants, $329,000 for coordinated community re-entry programs, $493,000 to streamline the parole process and an unspecified amount of funds has been allocated to the board of probation and parole to create and maintain local grants to improving adult probation services. Other related initiatives in the state include $3,537,000 for innovative policing grants, $1,727,000 for medium and short-minimum offender diversion, $1 million for victim services, and $400,000 for the sentencing commission to create a risk assessment instrument.

Outside the JRI, Pennsylvania has programs that provide state matching funds for federal grants aimed at adult drug court outcome evaluation, changing offender behavior programs, correctional education, in-prison volunteer support, the justice and mental health collaboration project, and for re-entry education.


Virginia recently passed a bill creating a budget of $1,014,511,459 for the operation of secure correctional facilities. The stated goal of this funding is to enhance the prison life of inmates and to improve their ability to integrate when released. This bill is a separate appropriation from core prisons funding and is focused on innovative and reformative programs, earning Virginia its place on this list.

Allocated in this bill are $75,000 for the "FETCH" program, in which inmates train dogs for home adoption. This gives them a marketable skill when paroled. It also allocates $250,000 for a culinary arts program in which inmates are trained in food service activities.

Other programs include $170,000 provide transportation for family members to visit offenders in prison and to provide ancillary services to family members, $950,000 to enhance faith-based services to inmates, $921,040 for inmate medical costs, $3,525,783 for the Department of Corrections to use for initiatives to improve recruitment and retention of correctional personnel. It also contains $70,000 for the Sex Offender Residential Treatment Program.


Kentucky's Department of Corrections receives a budget of only $530 million. This budget has not been expanded recently and the state's DOC operates leanly. However, the state recently enacted a prison reform and re-entry bill which seeks to assist inmates with reintegration to society, post-incarceration, without spending any extra money. This bill earned Kentucky its place on this list.

Points in the bill related to parole and probation include allowing private industry to develop work programs inside prisons and hire inmates, develop inmate's professional skills, and removing the automatic ban on ex-offenders receiving state business licenses. The bill also expands the "good time" credit system so inmates could earn early parole by participating in drug treatment programs or working towards a GED.


North Dakota Budget Department of Corrections has a budget of $280,334,655. One source notes that "[s]ince 1992, the state’s population has increased less than 20 percent, but the number of inmates has gone up 250 percent and is projected to continue to rise." An innovative new set of policies has been initiated in North Dakota, modeled on the Norwegian system, which has the lowest recidivism rate in the world (about 20 percent.) The Norwegian system is heavily focused on preparing inmates for reintegration. Even though many of the reforms highlighted are more focused on in-prison experiences than probation and parole reform, the whole state philosophy on prisons and prisoner releases is being reformed. North Dakota's attempt to redesign its prison system after the Norwegian model earned the state its place on this list.

Here are some aspects of the reforms, as demonstrated in policies at a minimum security facility: Inmates and employees dress casually and address each other by their first names, rooms are modeled on dorm rooms rather than prison cells, inmates leave their shoes in the hall, inmates are referred to as "residents" and may go off-site to work during the day, as well as to go shopping. The largest difference is the training of the staff to focus on treating everyone with respect.

Even in maximum security facilities, the program has shown results. There used to be 150 inmates in solitary confinement. That number is down to 6. Guards in the solitary wing converse and play games with the inmates. Inmates teach classes and some have their own rooms. Residents in poor health are assigned caregivers and guards each have assigned inmates to whom they are directed to speak at least twice a day in order to form bonds.


Alabama, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Kentucky, and North Dakota have implemented a wide array of reforms aimed at reducing recidivism and improving their parole and probation programs. North Dakota, in particular, is overhauling the underlying philosophy of its department of corrections in order to fight a rising trend in incarceration numbers.


  • "An air of normality is pervasive and intentional. Residents crisscross the grounds all day long. On a typical morning, one is driving a front loader tractor across the parking lot. Another is toting his laundry to the washing center. Two more are lounging on a bench. Others are prepping a mostly dirt baseball field for that night’s game between the residents and the staff. Inside, a social studies class is in session, and close by, a pair of student welders, who will graduate later that afternoon, practice their newly learned skills. "
  • "Bertsch must make do with the physical limitations of her prisons as well as financial constraints. North Dakota is not going to allocate funds for a completely redesigned prison system, at least not anytime soon. Bertsch is quick to point out that the changes she has implemented to date have not cost the state any additional money."