Has America Abandoned the Concept of Rehabilitation?

August 3, 2009

New Research Shows A Record Number of “Lifers” in Prisons

It seems that the U.S. has abandoned the concept of rehabilitating criminal offenders. Instead, states are throwing away the book by enacting tough mandatory minimum sentencing laws. To make matters worse, parole boards are apparently reluctant to grant parole even to those who are eligible.

A recent article in The New York Times highlights this situation by noting that there are more prisoners serving life sentences in the U.S. than ever before. There are reportedly 140,610 lifers amongst America’s 2.3 million prison inmates, according to the Sentencing Project, up from 34,000 in 1984.

That’s a 6,664.706 % increase in only 25 years!

The states with the most lifers are California, Alabama, Massachusetts, Nevada, and New York. California’s prison system, the largest in the nation with 170,000 inmates, has 34,164 lifers alone.

It seems that the goal of incarceration in this country is no longer rehabilitation but “lifetime isolation and incapacitation,” according to one person quoted in the article.

Although those who’ve received life terms are generally violent criminals, this is indicative of the way America now deals with all of its offenders. Even non-violent offenders can be hit with “three strikes” sentences that incarcerate them for decades.

There are ways to cope with offenders, particularly those convicted of non-violent and drug-related offenses, that will minimize the negative impact on communities while decreasing the massive expense of locking up everyone. Community supervision is an option that is too often overlooked.

New York State spends $44,000 annually to incarcerate each offender compared to a fraction of that to supervise an offender in the community on probation or parole. The cost is even higher in New York City – a whopping $59,900 to jail an offender for one year.

America Works believes that the best way to break the cycle of recidivism is to prepare ex-offenders for employment, then give them the tools they need to become self-sufficient.

Over the past nine years, we have placed approximately 20,000 ex-offenders in jobs in New York City. When newly released prisoners are referred to us, we provide them with targeted training as well as a resume, appropriate clothing, and car fare, then arrange for job interviews.

In Newark, N.J., where a similar program has been under way for just over 12 months, the recidivism rate for our participants is 2.5%. That’s a small fraction of the state-wide average of 51%, according to the “Serious and Violent Offender Reentry Initiative (SVORI) Final Report” by the Rutgers University School of Criminal Justice.

Job placement programs such as this one actually benefit the state, the county, and the city. Moving ex-offenders into employment decreases the burden on expensive state programs such as welfare and food stamps while simultaneously increasing income tax revenues. But it has social benefits that aren’t easily quantified such as keeping families together and providing better nutrition to children – benefits that are easy to believe in.

Advertisements

Prison Spending Outpaces All But Medicaid

March 5, 2009

By SOLOMON MOORE

 Published: March 2, 2009 , The New York Times

One in every 31 adults, or 7.3 million Americans, is in prison, on parole or probation, at a cost to the states of $47 billion in 2008, according to a new study.

Criminal correction spending is outpacing budget growth in education, transportation and public assistance, based on state and federal data. Only Medicaid spending grew faster than state corrections spending, which quadrupled in the past two decades, according to the report Monday by the Pew Center on the States, the first breakdown of spending in confinement and supervision in the past seven years.

The increases in the number of people in some form of correctional control occurred as crime rates declined by about 25 percent in the past two decades.

As states face huge budget shortfalls, prisons, which hold 1.5 million adults, are driving the spending increases.

States have shown a preference for prison spending even though it is cheaper to monitor convicts in community programs, including probation and parole, which require offenders to report to law enforcement officers. A survey of 34 states found that states spent an average of $29,000 a year on prisoners, compared with $1,250 on probationers and $2,750 on parolees. The study found that despite more spending on prisons, recidivism rates remained largely unchanged.

Pew researchers say that as states trim services like education and health care, prison budgets are growing. Those priorities are misguided, the study says.

“States are looking to make cuts that will have long-term harmful effects,” said Sue Urahn, managing director of the Pew Center on the States. “Corrections is one area they can cut and still have good or better outcomes than what they are doing now.”

Brian Walsh, a senior research fellow at the conservative-leaning Heritage Foundation, agreed that focusing on probation and parole could reduce recidivism and keep crime rates low in the long run. But Mr. Walsh said tougher penalties for crimes had driven the crime rate down in the first place.

“The reality is that one of the reasons crime rates are so low is because we changed our federal and state systems in the past two decades to make sure that people who commit crimes, especially violent crimes, actually have to serve significant sentences,” he said.

Over all, two-thirds of offenders, or about 5.1 million people in 2008, were on probation or parole. The study found that states were not increasing their spending for community supervision in proportion to their growing caseloads. About $9 out of $10 spent on corrections goes to prison financing (that includes money spent to house 780,000 people in local jails).

One in 11 African-Americans, or 9.2 percent, are under correctional control, compared with one in 27 Latinos (3.7 percent) and one in 45 whites (2.2 percent). Only one out of 89 women is behind bars or monitored, compared with one out of 18 men.

Georgia had 1 in 13 adults under some form of punishment; Idaho, 1 in 18; the District of Columbia, 1 in 21; Texas, 1 in 22; Massachusetts, 1 in 24; and Ohio, 1 in 25.

Peter Greenwood, the executive director of the Association for the Advancement of Evidence Based Practice, a group that favors rehabilitative approaches, said states started spending more on prisons in the 1980s during the last big crime wave.

“Basically, when we made these investments, public safety and crime was the No. 1 concern of voters, so politicians were passing all kinds of laws to increase sentences,” Mr. Greenwood said.

President Bill Clinton signed legislation to increase federal sentences, he said.

“Now, crime is down,” Mr. Greenwood said, “but we’re living with that legacy: the bricks and mortar and the politicians who feel like they have to talk tough every time they talk about crime.”

Mr. Greenwood said prisons and jails, along with their powerful prison guard unions, service contracts, and high-profile sheriffs and police chiefs, were in a much better position to protect their interests than were parole and probation officers.

“Traditionally, probation and parole is at the bottom of the totem pole,” he said. “They’re just happy every time they don’t lose a third of their budget.”