The American criminal justice system is broken. Wrongdoers go to prison, become hardened by the experience, only to be released and commit additional crimes, thus reentering the criminal justice system. This cycle of crime, punishment, crime, and then back to punishment is often continual, and it is intergenerational, too. According to the latest RAND Corporation/Correctional Education Association study, 43 percent of released prisoners will recidivate within 3 years of their release from prison. While this is in line with several Pew Center on the States’ studies, the Bureau of Justice Statistics actually states that the 3 year recidivism rate is in the 50th percentile. Something clearly needs to be done.
Prisons: The Warehousing of People
While there are many causes for such a high recidivism — or failure — rate, in my mind they all come down to one component: wrongdoers are going to prison and are not being transformed by the experience. This is quite a sad statement considering that the American taxpayers spend tens of thousands of dollars per year to incarcerate each offender. We are essentially paying for the state to house people in concrete and cinderblock rooms, wait the prescribed time, and then release them as the same people they were when they went in in the first place. To call this ineffectual and simpleminded would be a gross understatement.
A Transformational Experience
What is needed is to manufacture a transformational experience for those Americans we incarcerate. We need to come up with some way to change people, not merely warehouse them. The research indicates that prison education, substance abuse and mental health treatment, as well as a structured reintegration plan, will make all the difference in the world. Let’s take each in turn.
Prison Education: The educating of prisoners is a tried and true method of reducing recidivism. Most prisoners have less than an 8th grade education. Some can’t even read. Both of these sad facts make them effectively unemployable. They wouldn’t even qualify for employment at a fast food restaurant. When you take into account that the research states that employment is the single greatest factor affecting whether a former prisoner recidivates or not, the true importance of prison education programs comes to the forefront. Providing a year of college education to a prisoner costs one-tenth the cost of each year’s incarceration. A little money up front to create and sustain such programs would easily pay for itself within just a handful of years, and continue to pay dividends for years to come.
In-Prison Treatment: An unfortunate number of prisoners have substance abuse addictions and mental health disorders. Prisons are more and more becoming warehouses of the mentally ill and those with substance abuse problems. People become addicted to drugs, engage in crime to pay for their addictions, and then go to prison. In fact, over half of all prisoners are incarcerated for drug-related offenses. As for the mentally ill, they have their own set of problems which makes conduct disorders almost expected. What we need to be doing is providing both of these groups with meaningful therapeutic treatment. Prisoners who can only think about their next fix and prisoners who can’t even function are not going to be able to survive upon release. Releasing them in this condition is planning for them to fail. If for no other reason, affected prisoners should be treated because it is simply the right thing to do.
Reintegration Back into Society: For some absurd reason, prisoners — people locked away for years, if not decades — are expected to hit the ground running and do so in a socially acceptable manner the moment they are released from prison. This is an often unattainable ideal. What needs to be put into place is a program of gradual release. Something which employs incremental steps of increasing freedom and responsibility. This way prisoners, who haven’t had to engage in essential tasks like shopping for groceries and dealing with real-world temptations (e.g., bars, ready access to drugs, etc.), will have a monitored and structured system of release. This will provide the support and the supervision required so that prisoners will make the right decisions and be on their feet by the time of their actual release date. The modern model of halfway houses presents some progress toward this ideal, but it would be better if each incremental step down in custody and supervision were to be throughout the prisoner’s term of incarceration, not just the last 1 to 6 months of it.
A Comprehensive Solution
Much of the public policy debate concerns finding a magic pill. We think, “Ahh, shock incarceration is the key.” Or, “If we make it so costly to commit crimes then crimes won’t be committed, so let’s increase mandatory minimums.” Ideas like these are not the answer, because many still commit crimes knowing that there are grossly adverse consequences awaiting them. There is no magic pill for crime. But there are proven methods of reducing it.
The research clearly shows that in-prison education reduces recidivism rates dramatically. The research also shows that a foundation of effective sanity must be there for this educational structure — and living skills themselves — to be built. And everyone who deals with prisoners understands how dangerous the first few weeks and months are to a returning prisoner’s success. Simply, the prisoner must be capable of learning (through substance abuse treatment and mental health counseling), they must be taught a new set of marketable skills (prison education and vocational training), and they must be assisted on their way out the door (via a halfway house or another form of support).
This is simple, it is clear, and it is vastly less expensive than incarceration. Yet, it is not put into action because it isn’t politically expedient.
The American People Aren’t Buying
The research is there in black and white. It has been studied, it has been peer reviewed and verified, it has been published, and it has been ignored. All of the research in the world will not make the American public support smart-on-crime policies. We in the prison reform community have to help them understand that this isn’t a matter of being tough on prisoners or rewarding them for their crimes, but a matter of increasing victimization and corrections’ costs or reducing both. The discussion has to be framed in terms of benefits to the American taxpayer, their communities, and their families. Once they understand that the aforementioned initiatives are in their own best interests — and aren’t based on rewarding criminals — then we as a nation will have a chance at implementing the above reforms and realizing the truly revolutionary benefits.