Prisons are the only businesses that succeed by failing.
In the United States, failed corrections systems cost taxpayers $68 billion a year and return approximately 50 percent of ex-offenders back to prison within three years. Any other business that failed half the time would close its doors.
But many states are changing this cycle. These states have decided to make public safety a priority by making intelligent choices between those who need to be locked up and those who should be punished in community facilities. Faced with the reality that 95 percent of inmates will serve their time and be released back to our communities, far-sighted leaders have shown that it is possible to lower prison populations while keeping the public safe.
Justice Fellowship has worked alongside these legislators and policy makers and is pleased to say the efforts are paying off.
A Laboratory of 50 States
“It is one of the happy incidents of the federal system that a single courageous State may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country,” Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis (1916 to 1939) is famous for observing.
Make no mistake about it: America’s justice system is broken. But a combination of tough economic times and moral leaders is causing the rest of the country to sit up and try some different approaches.
For instance, last year, after enacting sweeping corrections reforms, “Tough on Crime” Texas was able to scrap plans to build three more prisons. The state redirected a large part of the money saved into community treatment for the mentally ill and low-level drug addicts. The results are promising. The state has stopped sending its overflow of prisoners to already crowded county jails. And for the first time ever, all drug addicts in the system are receiving treatment.
Maryland, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Jersey, North Carolina, and South Carolina have joined Texas in looking for ways to reduce prison populations and slash crime rates. These states are saving hundreds of millions of dollars by reserving costly prison beds for truly dangerous criminals, while still keeping low-risk offenders accountable in the community.
They are reducing the need for prisons by using new technologies to monitor parolees’ location and behavior, and providing more effective supervision and treatment programs to help them avoid criminal lifestyles. Reentry initiatives are reducing recidivism and making the public safer by teaching inmates to succeed as law-abiding citizens. In addition, they are saving hundreds of millions of dollars—money that can now be spent on roads, hospitals, and schools instead of on incarceration.
A Corrections Crisis—the Michigan Experiment
A year ago Michigan’s prison population had more than quintupled over the prior three and a half decades, and its corrections costs consumed nearly a quarter of the budget’s general revenue funds. Now legislators in Lansing have called for reforms that hold promise for deterring criminal behavior, lowering rates of re-offense, and reducing spending on corrections. Here are some highlights.
The primary principle is simple: Focus corrections spending on reducing risks to the public by prioritizing offenders who actually threaten safety, and concentrate corrections money and energy on lowering the risk of re-offense by helping empower offenders to avoid future criminal behavior. Corrections costs will decrease as fewer people cycle through the prisons.
Some of the ways Michigan plans to change its corrections system include:
- Assessing the risk level of offenders on probation and creating various tiers of supervision intensity based on their risk. Research shows that disproportionate treatment of parolees increases their chances of re-offending. Some ex-offenders don’t need very much supervision; some need a lot. As a result, Michigan legislators recently introduced legislation focusing supervision on high-risk offenders.
- Developing a more proportionate response to probation and parole violations. Delivering long prison sentences to people who commit minor violations makes little sense, especially when short and swift responses to these violations have proven more effective in compelling compliance. A program in Hawaii demonstrates the effectiveness of such a proportionate approach. Offenders in Hawaii’s Opportunity Probation with Enforcement (HOPE) program are guaranteed punishment for noncompliance within a week’s time. Using short jail stays and drug treatment as sanctions, the program has yielded remarkable results: Arrest rates for HOPE probationers are three times lower than comparison probationers.
- Helping probationers and parolees reintegrate into society by helping them find and keep a job. Because a job is essential to success in our communities, having one lowers offenders’ risk levels. The Washington State Institute for Public Policy reports that multiple job-training programs have helped reduce criminal behavior and save money by preventing ex-offenders from returning to prison.
- Developing incentives to motivate positive behavior. Arizona has begun to relax supervision on offenders as they participate in treatment and training programs and demonstrate good behavior. Offering people rewards for changing lifestyles gives them an excellent incentive to become productive and peaceful.
- Making room in prison for the high-risk offenders. Michigan plans to grant parole to all inmates who have completed the entirety of their minimum imposed sentence, have participated in rehabilitation programs while in prison, and are not charged with serious, violent crimes. Removing these offenders from prison creates space for those who are truly dangerous.
Budget Crises Paving the Way for Reform
In Virginia, corrections spending has doubled in the past eight years, California is staggering under the financial burden of caring for a growing number of ill inmates, and Florida lawmakers are proposing to house offenders in tents because of overloaded prisons. West Virginia, Kentucky, and Washington are also scrambling to deal with their own unsustainable situations.
A silver lining to this coast-to-coast crisis, however, is that lawmakers are looking for ways to reduce their state prison populations. This is good news on the public safety front, since research demonstrates only a loose and inconsistent link between incarceration and lower crime rates. With an average nationwide recidivism rate nearing two-thirds, and parole failures representing one-third of prison admissions, the money poured into corrections is not producing the peace and security that communities expect.
Recipe for Reform
Here is a formula states should follow for success:
- We should lock up the really bad guys for a very long time.
- A successful criminal justice system must have serious consequences. This does not necessarily have to mean prison, but it does have to mean real punishment:
- Probation and parole should not be get-out-of-jail-free cards.
- Probation and parole systems need real teeth.
- Violators must receive swift and certain sanctions.
- Probation violation centers should be combined with drug treatment and job training.
- Probation and parole systems must be held accountable.
- Offenders on probation and parole must have real incentives for good behavior.
- Judges should be allowed to send violators to a probation center rather than to jail or prison.
3. Smart and safe steps are best for taxpayers because they:
- Protect against waste and inefficiency
- Require less money
- Cut both crime and costs
- Turn offenders into taxpayers rather than tax burdens.
Justice Fellowship’s website has a wealth of information on common-sense reforms for our criminal justice system. Please check it out!