The future of incarceration?

Great piece by Mark Kleiman and colleagues in Vox about how to re-think incarceration.  I’m actually teaching Prisons in my Criminal Justice Policy class this week and this one goes straight into required reading.  It actually builds on ideas in Kleiman’s great book, When Brute Force Fails.  Our current system of incarcerating of way too many people is absurdly costly in both dollars and the needless damage to human lives.  So, here’s the proposal:

America’s prison state is a disaster. One percent of the adult population is behind bars, and corrections is squeezing higher education out of state budgets. We have five times as many people in prison as we ever had before 1980, and five times as many (per capita) as any other advanced democracy.

What’s worse is that it is, in this era, a completely unnecessary disaster. It’s simply not true that to punish someone and control his behavior you need to lock him up and pay for his room and board.

While it lasts, prison is horrible for the prisoner and expensive for the state. And things often don’t get better when it ends: of the people released from prison today, about 60 percent will be back inside within three years…

For the transition from prison to life outside to be successful, it needs to be gradual. If someone needed to be locked up yesterday, he shouldn’t be completely at liberty today. And he shouldn’t be asked to go from utter dependency to total self-sufficiency in one flying leap. He needs both more control and more support. Neither alone is likely to do the job.

Of course, both control and support cost money. But so does prison. The trick is to start the re-entry process before what would otherwise have been the release date, so the money you spend in the community is balanced by the money you’re not spending on a cell. The average cost of holding a prisoner comes to about $2,600 per month. At the same time, even very intrusive supervision leaves a released offender freer than he would have been on the inside. So even a program that looks expensive and intrusive compared with ordinary re-entry or parole is cheap and liberating compared with a cellblock…

Start with housing. A substantial fraction of prison releasees go from a cellblock to living under a bridge: not a good way to start free life. Spend some of the money that would otherwise have financed a prison cell to rent a small, sparsely furnished efficiency apartment. In some ways, that apartment is still a cell and the offender still a prisoner. He can’t leave it or have visitors except as specifically permitted. The unit has cameras inside and is subject to search. But he doesn’t need guards, and doesn’t have to worry about prison gangs or inmate-on-inmate assault.

Drug testing and sanctions can avoid relapse to problem drug use; GPS monitoring can show where the re-entrant is all the time, which in turn makes it easy to know whether he’s at work when he’s supposed to be at work and at home when he’s supposed to be at home. This makes curfews enforceable and keeps him away from personal “no-go” zones (the street corner where he used to deal, the vicinity of his victim’s residence). GPS would also place him at the scene of any new crime he might commit, thus drastically reducing his chances of getting away with it and therefore his willingness to take the gamble.

Start with housing. A substantial fraction of prison releasees go from a cellblock to living under a bridge: not a good way to start free life. Spend some of the money that would otherwise have financed a prison cell to rent a small, sparsely furnished efficiency apartment. In some ways, that apartment is still a cell and the offender still a prisoner. He can’t leave it or have visitors except as specifically permitted. The unit has cameras inside and is subject to search. But he doesn’t need guards, and doesn’t have to worry about prison gangs or inmate-on-inmate assault.

Drug testing and sanctions can avoid relapse to problem drug use; GPS monitoring can show where the re-entrant is all the time, which in turn makes it easy to know whether he’s at work when he’s supposed to be at work and at home when he’s supposed to be at home. This makes curfews enforceable and keeps him away from personal “no-go” zones (the street corner where he used to deal, the vicinity of his victim’s residence). GPS would also place him at the scene of any new crime he might commit, thus drastically reducing his chances of getting away with it and therefore his willingness to take the gamble.

The apartment functions as a prison without bars. [emphasis mine]

It’s well worth reading through the whole thing, but suffice it to say, this proposal is win, win, win, win.  Better for the prisoners, better for society, less recidivism, less financial expense, etc.  The only downside, if you see it that way, is that it is less punitive.  Alas, that certainly makes it harder (though not nearly as much as status quo bias).  I think most Americans (and polling suggests as much) would prefer a criminal justice system with much less recidivism that is less economically costly if the “cost” is that prisoners suffer less.

Anyway, the technology is there to make this feasible in a way it wasn’t not long ago.  Here’s somewhere where we can truly leverage technological advancements for substantial improvements over existing policy.  The only thing lacking at the moment, oh-so-sadly, seems to be political will.

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About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

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