During his State of the Union address, President Donald Trump declared that the administration will, “Help former inmates who have served their time get a second chance.” This month, the President also signed an executive order establishing a council to specifically focus on prison reform.
Over the past 40 years, the U.S. justice system turned toward a punitive model, prioritizing tough-on-crime stances that focused heavily on punishment.
This system miserably failed.
Federal and state governments combine to spend at least $91.1 billion every year on corrections, but a study found that the annual burden of U.S. incarceration on institutions, families, and communities actually totals $1.015 trillion every year. This number includes the reduced incomes and productivity of prisoners post-incarceration, totaling $230 billion, and their higher mortality rates, costing society $62.6 billion. Families incur significant costs as well, such as visitation ($800 million), eviction ($200 million), adverse health effects ($10.2 billion), and increased infant mortality rates ($1.2 billion). The total societal cost of incarceration approaches nearly 6% of U.S. gross domestic product.
Despite all of these massive financial costs, two-thirds of prisoners will be re-arrested or “recidivate” within 3 years of release, and over half of this number will face arrest by the end of their first year out of prison. In summary, our current punitive model is expensive, hurts American families, and does not stop the cycle of crime.
Something in the criminal justice system failed dramatically, and it can no longer be ignored. Knowing this, several states refused to ignore the problem. Consider Texas and South Carolina.
In 2007, Texas lawmakers faced a crisis after the Legislative Budget Board found that 17,332 new prison beds would be required before 2012, at a cost of $1.3 billion. Legislators refused to accept this trend, and instead allocated $241 million for treatment-oriented programs in prison and outside prison for non-violent offenders. As such, violent crime rates in the state dropped significantly.
South Carolina found similar outcomes when facing its own correctional population crisis. In 2009, a study found the state would need to pay for an entirely new prison and operating costs for that prison, totaling at least $450 million, if the current trend continued. So the South Carolina legislature unanimously passed into law an overhaul of corrections policy. It placed low-level, non-violent offenders, which composed about half of South Carolina’s prison population, in community-based programs instead of prison. This made room in prisons for dangerous criminals. Additionally, it used risk assessments to find the most effective community resources that would actually reduce recidivism rates and decrease costs, removed barriers for inmates to successfully re-enter the community, and gave incentives for those in out-of-prison treatment to stay away from further drug and crime-related pursuits. This contributed to at least $491 million in savings for the state.
Successes like these can happen at the federal level.
To effectively target recidivism rates and create a positive re-entry environment, policymakers must:
(1) Encourage in-prison programs that emphasize vocational and educational training:
The most successful programs inside and outside prison give the incarcerated skills that can be used to productively contribute to society. A 2013 study from the National Criminal Justice Reference Service uncovered that in-prison college education programs had a direct correlation to lower recidivism rates and that inmates that completed education programs while serving time did not re-offend for a longer period of time than those who did not.
(2) Consider drug and mental health treatment:
A study from the American Psychological Association found that treating drug addiction significantly improves the likelihood that inmates will not use drugs, get out of prison, and be employed. After studying over 400 prisoners at a state prison in California, Dr. Harry K. Wexler found that only 27% of prisoners who completed the prison’s drug treatment program recidivated, compared to 75% recidivism among those who didn’t participate. Similar numbers can be found for appropriate mental health treatment.
(3) Work with law enforcement and community leaders to find the most effective programs to reduce recidivism:
Community leaders drive change in the nation, especially for criminal justice services. Look at the Ready, Willing, and Able (RWA) Program by The Doe Fund in New York City. The program serves to transition the formerly incarcerated and homeless back into mainstream society by paid occupational training, housing, mandatory education courses, financial management, and conflict resolution. A Harvard study found that graduates of RWA are 60% less likely to be convicted of a felony within 3 years of leaving the program, and an independent audit noted that it saved New York taxpayers $3.60 for “every dollar utilized in the program.” The Doe Fund is considering the spread of RWA across the U.S.
These types of reforms benefit individuals, communities, governments, and our nation. Maintaining the current criminal justice system is an unrealistic burden on taxpayers and society, and it is damaging our future as a nation. Not only has this system failed to rehabilitate prisoners, but it failed to protect taxpayers from an all-consuming budget threatening to take over our future. Implementing criminal justice reform focused on community safety, rehabilitation, and cost-effectiveness is one way to stop it.