Incarceration

Overview

Though a significant percentage of low-level crime is related to drug addiction and mental health issues, legislators generally rely upon arrest and incarceration as the primary tools with which to fix any behavioral problem. But most law enforcement professionals know how frustratingly ineffective these tools can be. Jails and prisons now house more people in need of mental health and drug treatment than our mental health and drug treatment facilities, but do little to nothing to address these problems. Magnifying the problem, sentences have grown exponentially in recent years as a result of state policies producing ineffectively long punishments.

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Though a significant percentage of low-level crime is related to drug addiction and mental health issues, legislators generally rely upon arrest and incarceration as the primary tools with which to fix any behavioral problem. But most law enforcement professionals know how frustratingly ineffective these tools can be. Jails and prisons now house more people in need of mental health and drug treatment than our mental health and drug treatment facilities, but do little to nothing to address these problems.1 Magnifying the problem, sentences have grown exponentially in recent years as a result of state policies producing ineffectively long punishments.

Relying on the criminal justice system to fix problems it is not meant to solve has reduced public safety for four reasons. First, since criminalization fails to address underlying mental illness and drug addiction, many offenders continue to commit crime upon release. Second, incarceration often severs offenders’ healthy relationships with family and community, pushing them into criminal networks and depriving their children of a parent. Third, even if they are never locked up, branding these individuals with a permanent criminal record prevents them from becoming responsible citizens upon release by creating barriers to legal employment, housing, and education. Finally, clogging the system with low-level offenders diverts resources from preventing, investigating, prosecuting, and rehabilitating those who commit serious, violent crime.

Over the past 45 years, states have responded to public safety concerns by dramatically expanding incarceration and correctional budgets, while divesting from education, mental health care, and drug treatment. The prison population has grown by 500 percent since 1980, and two-thirds of this population struggles with mental health and drug abuse.2 Though they are not equipped for it, jails and prisons have become our country’s largest mental health and drug treatment providers.3

Politicians have created a one-size-fits-all approach to criminal justice by ignoring effective alternatives to incarceration and passing mandatory sentencing laws. These laws strip judges of their power to consider the unique circumstances of each case, lumping together those who have committed serious crimes with low-risk individuals who need mental health and addiction treatment. As a result, though the US justice system was created to force accountability and rehabilitation on a small population of high-risk offenders, it is currently clogged with low-risk individuals, costing taxpayers over $250 billion every year.4 Like a one-speed bicycle that cannot adapt to different terrain, the justice system is stuck in “prison gear.”

Nowhere is the problem with our one-size-fits-all approach more acute than in addressing drug use problems in minority communities. Though African-Americans and Latinos have similar rates of drug use compared to white people, they are arrested and incarcerated at significantly higher rates for nonviolent drug possession and other low-level crimes.5

A justice system stuck in “prison gear” actually makes our communities less safe. It fails to address underlying causes of the majority of low-level crime: addiction, poverty, and untreated mental health problems. Imprisoning low-risk individuals exposes them to violence and trauma in jail—exacerbating their mental health and substance abuse issues. It severs their healthy ties to family and community and pushes them to join gangs and criminal networks. It also destabilizes their families; the 11 million children who have had a parent behind bars are themselves more likely to use drugs, suffer trauma, and commit crimes.6 And saddling more people with a criminal record increases recidivism by blocking legal employment, housing, and education—the essential ingredients for building stable, responsible lives.

The incarceration of low-risk individuals also undermines public safety because it diverts resources from dealing with those who commit serious, violent crimes. It prevents law enforcement from focusing its resources on preventing, investigating, and prosecuting serious crime. It prevents prisons from offering rehabilitation to help offenders become the people we want them to be upon release, a dangerous failure since almost everyone in prison is eventually released.7

Solutions

In order to improve public safety, we need to think beyond incarceration and arrest as the only solutions to crime. Criminal justice professionals need to be equipped with a range of tools to prevent crime and to address its underlying causes.

State policies, not crime levels, are the biggest drivers of rising incarceration rates. State incarceration rates have risen primarily because states are sending a much larger share of offenders to prison and keeping them there longer. States can reduce their incarceration rates – without harming public safety – by reclassifying low-level felonies to misdemeanors where appropriate, shortening jail and prison terms, and expanding the use of alternatives to prison.

We also need to restore each judge’s ability to decide sentences that will improve public safety by addressing the root causes of crime. Judges are currently prevented from weighing common sense factors to determine the most appropriate sentence for each defendant by legislative barriers including mandatory minimum sentences, sentencing enhancements, and sentencing guidelines.

Thousands of Americans are returned to prison every year for violating the technical rules of their parole or probation—through a hearing in which they have no right to a lawyer—though they did not commit a new crime. Our probation and parole systems punish them for minor rule violations that we know they are all likely to commit. We must reform the probation and parole systems to stop this unnecessary pipeline back to prison.

 

These programs divert those who commit crimes related to substance abuse and mental health issues from the criminal justice system into intensive, wraparound rehabilitation programs that confront the root causes of their crimes.

  • Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) allows specially trained patrol officers to divert individuals addicted to drugs from arrest into support programs where LEAD case managers work with them on addiction and mental health treatment, health care, and housing.
  • Miami-Dade’s Criminal Mental Health Project (CMHP), the leading example of pre-booking mental health diversion, directs emergency calls that may involve a mentally ill offender to trained officers. These officers bring in the offenders for mental health evaluation, providing support services that include medication, counseling, vocational training, help with government benefits, and housing.

Both LEAD and CMHP have been shown to significantly reduce recidivism, incarceration, and criminal justice spending.8

Restorative justice conferences bring together offenders, crime survivors, family members, and community members so that the offenders can take responsibility for their actions and reach reconciliation with the crime survivors, their families, and their communities. Approximately 95 percent of victim-offender mediations reach consensus on the appropriate punishment.9

Restorative justice forces the perpetrator to listen to the crime survivor, respond, and take responsibility for his or her actions. Restorative conferences are proven to reduce reoffending rates, improve victim satisfaction, and save significant justice system resources.10

Arresting and jailing individuals for behavior that should be dealt with outside the justice system is most common in communities of color. Black people are punished more harshly than white people for the same crimes, from students in elementary school to juvenile offenders and adults.11 For example, white and black people use and sell drugs at similar rates,12 but black people are significantly more likely to be arrested, convicted, and incarcerated on drug charges.13 Studies link these disparities to unconscious bias, since most people perceive black kids as older and guiltier than white kids14 and support harsher punishment when the offenders are black.15 To address the root causes of crime and improve public safety, we must examine the role that race plays in our justice system.

Roughly half the people in jail are incarcerated because they cannot afford bail, not because they are dangerous or a flight risk.16

 Pre-trial detention of the poor crowds our jails and plunges families into crisis without improving public safety. Ending financial bail will still keep those who threaten public safety behind bars, while allowing others to return home and provide for their families until their cases can be heard.

When judges and parole board experts agree that someone no longer needs to be incarcerated, that person should be allowed to return home. Yet their decisions are blocked by federal Truth in Sentencing legislation and by governors afraid of political backlash. The federal prison system does not even offer parole. We must reinstate federal parole and restore control over parole decisions to those who will focus on public safety, not political convenience.

In the name of protecting the public, every state blocks individuals convicted of crimes from certain housing, employment, and licensing opportunities, as well as many social services. However, most of these barriers bring no public safety benefit. In fact, many barriers hurt public safety by increasing the chance that individuals with convictions end up unemployed and homeless. The more individuals feel like “second-class citizens” due to these barriers, the less their communities trust law enforcement. We can reduce the chances that these people commit new crimes and increase trust in law enforcement by limiting the collateral consequences of a conviction to those that bring a clear benefit to public safety.

Most states restrict the right to vote for people convicted of a felony, some for the rest of these individuals’ lives. These restrictions do nothing to improve public safety. They also hurt community relations with law enforcement, since preventing them from voting suggests that law enforcement does not believe they can contribute to society. The Constitutional right to vote should never be stripped from an American when there is no public safety justification, particularly since such restrictions hurt relationships between community members and law enforcement.

  1. Michael Arceneaux. “Why Are the Three Largest Mental Health Providers Jails?” NewsOne, 2014. Accessed January 13, 2017 at http://newsone.com/2744141/prisons-mental-health-providers/.
    Correctional Association of New York. “Substance Abuse Treatment in New York Prisons.” Correctional Association of New York fact sheet, February 1, 2011. Accessed January 13, 2017 at http://www.correctionalassociation.org/resource/substance-abuse-treatment-in-new-york-prisons.
  2. Sentencing Project. “Trends in US Corrections.” Sentencing Project Fact Sheet, Accessed January 13, 2017 at http://sentencingproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/Trends-in-US-Corrections.pdf.
    National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse. “New CASA Report Finds: 65% of U.S. Inmates Meet Medical Criteria for Substance Abuse Addiction, Only 11% Receive Any Treatment.” National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse website, New York, February 26, 2010. Accessed January 13, 2017 at http://www.centeronaddiction.org/newsroom/press-releases/2010-behind-bars-II.
  3. Michael Arceneaux. “Why Are the Three Largest Mental Health Providers Jails?” NewsOne, 2014. Accessed January 13, 2017 at http://newsone.com/2744141/prisons-mental-health-providers/.
    Correctional Association of New York. “Substance Abuse Treatment in New York Prisons.” Correctional Association of New York fact sheet, February 1, 2011. Accessed January 13, 2017 at http://www.correctionalassociation.org/resource/substance-abuse-treatment-in-new-york-prisons.
  4. /7. Executive Office of the President of the United States, “Economic Perspectives on Incarceration and the Criminal Justice System.” Executive Office of the President of the United States report, April 2016: 5. Accessed January 13, 2017 at https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/sites/default/files/page/files/20160423_cea_incarceration_criminal_justice.pdf.
  5. American Civil Liberties Union. “Report: The War on Marijuana in Black and White”. American Civil Liberties Union Report. Accessed 13 Jan. 2017 at https://www.aclu.org/report/report-war-marijuana-black-and-white
  6. Roettger, Swisher, Kuhl, and Chavez. “Paternal incarceration and trajectories of marijuana and other illegal drug use from adolescence into young adulthood: evidence from longitudinal panels of males and females in the United States”. US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. 28 Sept. 2010. Accessed 13 Jan. 2017 at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3690823/.
    Murphey, David and Cooper, P. Mae. “Parents Behind Bars”. Child Trends website. Accessed 13 Jan. 2017 at http://www.childtrends.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/2015-42ParentsBehindBars.pdf.
    Murray, Farrington, and Sekol. “Children’s Antisocial Behavior, Mental Health, Drug Use, and Educational Performance After Parental Incarceration:A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis”. American Psychological Association Report. 2012. Accessed 13 Jan. 2017 at https://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/features/bul-138-2-175.pdf.
  7. /4.  Nathan James, “Offender Reentry: Correctional Statistics, Reintegration into the Community, and Recidivism,” Congressional Research Service report, January 12, 2015. Accessed January 13, 2017 at https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/RL34287.pdf.
  8. Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion."LEAD Evaluation." Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion website. Accessed 12 Jan. 2017 at http://leadkingcounty.org/lead-evaluation/.Chang, Daniel. “Criminal mental health program in Miami-Dade seen as a model for nation” The Miami Herald. 21 May. 2016. Accessed 12 Jan. 2017 at http://www.miamiherald.com/news/health-care/article79004057.html
  9. The United States Department of Justice Office of Justice Programs. “Restorative Justice”  Office of Justice Programs website. Nov. 2010. Accessed 13 Jan 2017 at https://www.ojjdp.gov/mpg/litreviews/Restorative_Justice.pdf.
  10. Sherman, Lawrence, and Strang, Heather. “Restorative Justice: The Evidence”. The Smith Institute. 2007. Accessed 13 Jan. 2017 at http://www.iirp.edu/pdf/RJ_full_report.pdf
  11. Christopher Hartney and Linh Vuong. “Created Equal.” National Council on Crime and Deliquency Report, March 2009. Accessed January 13, 2017, at http://www.nccdglobal.org/sites/default/files/publication_pdf/created-equal.pdf US Department of Education Office for Civil Rights. “Civil Rights Data Collection: Data Snapshot: School Discipline.” US Department of Education Office for Civil Rights Issue Brief No. 1, March 21, 2014. Accessed January 13, 2017 at http://ocrdata.ed.gov/Downloads/CRDC-School-Discipline-Snapshot.pdf.
  12. SAMHSA. “Table 1.19B.” National Survey on Drug Use and Health 2012. Accessed January 13, 2017 at http://archive.samhsa.gov/data/NSDUH/2012SummNatFindDetTables/DetTabs/NSDUH-DetTabsSect1peTabs1to46-2012.htm#Tab1.19B. Howard N. Snyder and Melissa Sickmund. “Juvenile Offenders and Victims: 2006 National Report.” National Center for Juvenile Justice report, March 2006. Accessed January 13, 2017 at https://www.ojjdp.gov/ojstatbb/nr2006/downloads/nr2006.pdf.
  13.  Human Rights Watch. “Decades of Disparity Drug Arrests and Race in the United States.” Human Rights Watch report, March 2009. Accessed January 13, 2017 at https://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/reports/us0309web_1.pdf. Sonja B. Starr and M. Marit Rehavi. “Mandatory Sentencing and Racial Disparity: Assessing the Role of Prosecutors and the Effects of Booker.” Yale Law Journal 123(1), October 2013. Accessed January 13, 2017 at http://www.yalelawjournal.org/article/mandatory-sentencing-and-racial-disparity-assessing-the-role-of-prosecutors-and-the-effects-of-booker.
  14. American Psychological Association. “Black Boys Viewed as Older, Less Innocent Than Whites, Research Finds.” American Psychological Association website, March 6, 2014. Accessed January 13, 2017 at http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2014/03/black-boys-older.aspx
  15. Nazgol Ghandnoosh. “Race and Punishment: Racial Perceptions of Crim and Support for Punitive Policies.” Sentencing Project report, 2014. Accessed January 13, 2017 at http://www.atlanticphilanthropies.org/app/uploads/2015/09/Report-Race-and-Punishment.pdf.
  16. Wagner, Peter. “Jails matter. But who is listening?”.  The Prison Policy Initiative website. 14 Aug. 2015.  Accessed 13 Jan. 2017 at http://www.prisonpolicy.org/blog/2015/08/14/jailsmatter/