Alternatives to Incarceration
In the early 1980's, the United States already incarcerated the most serious violent offenders. So how does one explain a prison population that has risen by 628% since 1970, so that today there more than 5.6 million living Americans having spent time in a state or federal prison?
For starters, the number of inmates incarcerated for drug possession between 1980 and 2005 grew by more than 1,000% and now cost $8.3 billion dollars every year. As a result, between 1985 and 2004, states increased spending on corrections by 202%, while spending on public assistance decreased by more than 60%, and spending on higher education, Medicaid, and secondary/elementary education grew by just 3%, 47 %, and 55%, respectively.
With an eye towards our prison epidemic, the Vera Institute of Justice released a report recently on imprisonment in America titled "Reconsidering Incarceration: New Directions for Reducing Crime". Here is a summary of its findings:
--- Research shows that while the U.S. experienced a dramatic drop in crime between 1992 and 997, imprisonment was responsible for just 25% of that reduction.
--- The remaining 75% was caused by other factors, including lower unemployment, higher wages, more education, more high school graduates, fewer young persons in the population, increase in the number of police officers (provided that the number of police did not necessarily translate into more arrests), and decreases in crack cocaine markets.
--- The impact of incarceration on crime is inconsistent from one study to the next (research suggests that a 10% increase in incarceration could lead to no difference in the crime rate, or a 22% decrease, or a decrease only in property crime). The most consistent figure is that a 10% increase in imprisonment results in a 2% to 4% drop in crime rates.
--- Researchers focusing on specific neighborhoods found that more incarceration can actually increase crime rates, arguing that "high rates of imprisonment break down the social an family bonds that guide individuals away from crime, remove adults who would otherwise nurture children, deprive communities of income, reduce future income potential, and engender a deep resentment toward the legal system. As a result, as communities become less capable of maintaining social order through families or social groups, crime rates go up."
--- Increases in prison populations in states which already have large prison populations have less impact on crime (and eventually begin to increase crime rates) than in states with smaller prison populations.
--- Analysts are nearly unanimous in their conclusion that continued growth in incarceration will prevent considerably fewer, if any, crimes, and at substantially greater costs to taxpayers.
--- The more employment, the less crime. Imprisonment reduces employment, and hence can foster more crime. "Incarceration creates problems of low earnings and irregular employment for individuals after release from prison by dissuading employers from hiring them, disqualifying them from certain professions, eroding job skills, limiting acquisition from work experience, creating behaviors inconsistent with work routines outside prison, and undermining social connections to good job opportunities." Moreover, employers may shun neighborhoods with high incarceration rates, and prison can generate connections to illegal rather than legal employment. As two researchers explain, "'the magnitudes of the crime-unemployment effects ... suggest that policies aimed at improving the employment prospects of workers facing the greatest obstacles can be effective tools for combating crimes.'"
--- Research showed that a 10% increase in real wages produced significant decreases in both real property and violent crime.
--- An increase in citizens' education levels were associated with lower crime rates (with the percent increase in education level or graduation rates reflecting an equivalent decrease in the crime rates). Moreover, researchers argued that a 1% increase in male high school graduation rates would save the country $1.4 billion through crime reduction. Moreover, prison-based education programs were found to dramatically reduce recidivism rates.
--- The content of incarceration (or the quality and type of inmates' experience) matters greatly; for instance, the design and specificity of certain programs (rehabilitation programs tailored to the risks and needs of offenders) reduce recidivism, while programs such as boot camps do not.
The report concludes that "the impact of incarceration on crime is limited and diminishing. ... Public safety cannot be achieved only by responding to crime after it occurs ..." but by addressing factors that increase crime rates, such as "unemployment, poverty, and illiteracy." "By pursuing crime reduction chiefly through incarceration, states are forgoing the opportunity to invest in these other important areas." State policymakers should "look beyond incarceration for alternative policies" to enhance public safety at lower costs to both our wallets and our humanity.
Let us hope some of those policymakers are paying attention.