Back in 2011, North Carolina was sending far too many people to prison. The rate of imprisonment had been rising for years, and it looked to keep rising unless something changed.

Enter the Justice Reinvestment Act. Passed in 2011, this law had an immediate and positive effect on North Carolina’s prison population. According to an infographic released by the Justice Center, in just three years, the law had helped close 10 corrections facilities, saved $560 million and shaved 14% off the state’s recidivism rate.

An increased focus on probation

The centerpiece of the law was an increased focus on probation. Probation was made available more often. It was given better support. And it became harder to revoke. The logic, presumably, was that people are more likely to become positive members of society when they can interact with society. Changing the way probation worked gave more people the chance to turn their lives around.

How, exactly, did the law change how North Carolina’s probation works? Previously, people might have had their probation revoked for missing child support payments or failing to hold a suitable job. That meant they were suddenly dealing with a trial or automatic conviction. Now they might be held in prison for a period of up to 90 days, but they may still avoid a longer prison stay and the lingering effects of a conviction.

In most cases, judges can only revoke the probation for two reasons:

  • Committing another crime
  • Trying to “abscond” by willfully avoiding supervisory officers

Generally, if people don’t make these mistakes, the law offers smaller consequences than revocation for other failures.

The law seems to be working

Since the law was introduced, North Carolina’s prison population has dropped. The National Conference of State Legislatures says this is largely because judges have revoked only half as many probations since the law was passed.

The program seems to be making the streets safer, too. Fewer people are getting sent back to prison for new crimes. And the law’s first three years saw an 11% drop in the state’s overall crime rate.