Most criminal justice professionals agree that in order to improve public safety, we must focus resources on prevention, resorting to arrest and incarceration only when they are the most effective options. Criminal justice professionals need to be equipped with a range of tools to prevent crime and to address its underlying causes. Our solutions address the root causes of crime to improve public safety at four distinct stages of the criminal justice system: prevention, diversion, safety-focused incarceration, and successful reintegration. A significant percentage of crime is related to drug addiction and mental health issues, yet our primary response is arrest and incarceration. Most law enforcement professionals agree that it is better to prevent than to respond, and that arrest and incarceration are imperfect tools for dealing with such problems. 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 address these problems.1 At the same time, politicans have written one-size-fits-all laws that ignore effective alternatives to incarceration and make many sentences counterproductively long. These laws strip judges of their power to consider the unique circumstances of each case, lumping together those with a high probability of re-offending with others who, given proper support, pose little public safety risk. As a result, though the US prison system was created to house a small population of high-risk offenders, it is currently clogged with low-risk individuals, costing taxpayers more than $250 billion every year while failing to make our streets any safer.2 Like a one-speed bicycle that cannot adapt to different terrain, the justice system is stuck in “prison gear.” A justice system stuck in “prison gear” actually makes our communities less safe. It fails to prevent crime because it ignores underlying causes like addiction, homelessness, and untreated mental health problems. It exposes those who commit preventable crimes to violence and trauma in jail, exacerbating their mental health and substance abuse issues instead of confronting the root causes of their crimes. It severs their healthy ties to family and community and pushes them to join gangs and criminal networks for their own safety. It also destabilizes their families; the five million children who have grown up with a parent behind bars are themselves more likely to use drugs, become trauma victims, and commit crimes.3 Finally, branding more people with a criminal record increases recidivism by blocking legal employment, housing, and education—key ingredients for building stable, responsible lives.
The measure of the success or failure of any society’s criminal justice system is whether, while maintaining the civil liberties of its people, it makes that community safer. Yet many people come out of prison less stable and more dangerous than when they went in. So even by locking up more people than any other country in the world, we haven’t improved the safety of our communities or of our law enforcement officers.
Replacing prevention with incarceration also undermines public safety because it diverts resources from dealing with serious, violent crime. It prevents law enforcement from focusing its efforts on preventing, investigating, and prosecuting serious crime. It also prevents prisons from offering rehabilitation to help high-risk offenders become the people we want them to be upon release, a dangerous failure since almost everyone in prison is eventually released.4
A significant percentage of crime is related to drug addiction and mental health issues, yet our primary response is arrest and incarceration. Most law enforcement professionals agree that it is better to prevent than to respond, and that arrest and incarceration are imperfect tools for dealing with such problems. 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 address these problems.1
At the same time, politicans have written one-size-fits-all laws that ignore effective alternatives to incarceration and make many sentences counterproductively long. These laws strip judges of their power to consider the unique circumstances of each case, lumping together those with a high probability of re-offending with others who, given proper support, pose little public safety risk. As a result, though the US prison system was created to house a small population of high-risk offenders, it is currently clogged with low-risk individuals, costing taxpayers more than $250 billion every year while failing to make our streets any safer.2 Like a one-speed bicycle that cannot adapt to different terrain, the justice system is stuck in “prison gear.”
A justice system stuck in “prison gear” actually makes our communities less safe. It fails to prevent crime because it ignores underlying causes like addiction, homelessness, and untreated mental health problems. It exposes those who commit preventable crimes to violence and trauma in jail, exacerbating their mental health and substance abuse issues instead of confronting the root causes of their crimes. It severs their healthy ties to family and community and pushes them to join gangs and criminal networks for their own safety. It also destabilizes their families; the five million children who have grown up with a parent behind bars are themselves more likely to use drugs, become trauma victims, and commit crimes.3 Finally, branding more people with a criminal record increases recidivism by blocking legal employment, housing, and education—key ingredients for building stable, responsible lives.
The Law Enforcement Action Partnership supports programs that prevent individuals from becoming involved in crime in the first place.
Roughly two-thirds of all prison inmates dropped out of high school.5 Research suggests that we can prevent crime by investing in early childhood education and helping more students graduate from high school.6
One study estimates that raising the male graduation rate by ten percent would lower murder and assault rates by 20 percent 7 By investing in childhood education, we can both strengthen communities and increase public safety.
Investing in housing and treatment infrastructure can prevent crime and free up criminal justice resources to focus on real public safety threats. In every American city, a tiny percentage of individuals are responsible for a large percentage of arrests, jail bookings, ambulance rides, and hospital visits. These “frequent fliers” cycle in and out of jails and hospitals due to homelessness, untreated trauma and mental illness, and drug addiction. Project 25 in San Diego has made the switch from crisis response to prevention by enrolling the city’s 33 top utilizers of jail and hospital services in permanent housing and providing case managers to monitor their mental and physical health. Despite having only 33 participants, the program is saving $2.1 million per year by keeping these frequent fliers out of the city’s jails and hospitals.8 Project 25 is not an anomaly; evaluations of similar programs nationwide show that redirecting funding from our prisons to both housing programs and drug treatment and mental health clinics reduces crime.9
Supporting crime victims can also reduce crime and free up criminal justice resources to focus on the greatest threats to public safety. Many victims of traumatic crimes go on to commit crimes, particularly when their trauma is left untreated.10 In fact, exposure to physical and sexual abuse or gun violence as a child roughly doubles the chance that an individual will commit crimes later in life.11 Yet although eight out of ten violent crime victims report symptoms of trauma,12 only a third of all violent crime survivors receive any form of treatment or mental health support.13 Trauma recovery centers address this issue by providing mental health treatment, counseling, relocation assistance and compensation support for crime survivors.14 These centers can both heal their wounds and prevent future crime.
Preventing gang violence greatly increases public safety. Youth who live in high-crime neighborhoods face pressure to join gangs to protect themselves. These gangs are trapped in such vicious cycles of revenge that the leading cause of death among young black men today is homicide.15 This violence is preventable because the number of perpetrators is actually quite small. To prevent gang-related homicide, the city of Richmond, CA identifies a small group of the most heavily gang-involved youth and provides them with mentors, counseling, jobs, and seed funding to turn their lives around. Homicide in Richmond has dropped by 50 percent since the city began intensively mentoring and investing in small groups of gang-involved youth.16
The Law Enforcement Action Partnership supports efforts to prevent crime by removing low-risk individuals from the criminal justice system and addressing the root causes of their crimes.
These programs divert those who commit preventable crimes related to substance abuse and mental health issues from the criminal justice system and into programs that will make it less likely that they re-offend. Public safety improves when they are instead admitted to 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, housing, bureaucracy, and employment.
- 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 bureaucracy, and housing.
Both LEAD and CMHP have been shown to significantly reduce recidivism, incarceration, and criminal justice spending.17
Restorative justice conferences bring together offenders, crime survivors, family members, and community members so that offenders can take responsibility for their actions and directly answer to those they affected. Approximately 95 percent of victim-offender mediations reach consensus on the appropriate punishment.18 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 and save significant justice system resources.19 Since victims are most concerned with stopping the perpetrator from reoffending and ensuring that they take responsibility for the harm they caused,20 restorative conferences also improve victim satisfaction.21
The decision of whether to keep someone in jail while they await trial should be based on their risk to public safety, not on how much money they have. We should not keep people in jail because they are poor, and we should not allow dangerous people to buy their way out. Roughly half the people in jail today have not been found guilty; they are waiting behind bars for their case to be heard because they cannot afford to pay bail. Meanwhile, higher-risk offenders with greater financial resources are allowed to walk the streets. We support eliminating cash bail to send more people home to their families and keep those who present a threat off the streets.
Our nation’s jails are clogged with individuals who are incarcerated mainly because they are poor. Filling debtors’ prisons wastes resources needed for serious offenders and destroys police-community trust and cooperation. Millions of Americans receive fines every year for minor infractions, from traffic offenses like driving with a broken tail-light to trespassing or public intoxication. When individuals fail to pay these fines or appear in court, the amount owed skyrockets, and they can be arrested and jailed. Though the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Tate vs. Short found incarceration for nonpayment of fines unconstitutional in 1971, our nation’s poorest citizens regularly end up behind bars for their inability to pay.22 We must provide judges with more penalty options, such as community service, so that they are not forced to impose fines upon people who cannot pay.
Police arrest and jail individuals for behavior that should be dealt with outside the justice system in every community, but the problem is most pronounced 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.23 While white and black people use and sell drugs at similar rates,24 black people are significantly more likely to be arrested, convicted, and incarcerated on drug charges.25 Studies show that most people perceive black children as older and guiltier than white children26 and support harsher punishment when an offender is black.27
As a result of frequent negative experiences with law enforcement, entire communities of color have lost trust in and stopped cooperating with law enforcement, making effective policing much more difficult. To address the root causes of crime, improve public safety, and restore police-community trust, we must confront the role that race plays in our justice system.
- Safety-focused Incarceration
The Law Enforcement Action Partnership supports reforms that ensure individual prison sentences are decided in the interest of public safety.
Our nation’s dramatic increase in incarceration over the past thirty years has been caused not by rising crime but by politics. Incarceration rates have risen primarily because one-size-fits-all sentences decided by politicians 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, expanding the use of effective alternatives to prison, and allowing judges to hand down sentences that speak to the individual circumstances of a crime. Judges are currently prevented from weighing common-sense factors to determine the most appropriate sentence for defendants because politicians have tied their hands with mandatory minimum sentences, sentencing enhancements, and sentencing guidelines. We need to restore each judge’s ability to decide sentences that will improve public safety by addressing the root causes of crime.
The decision to release someone from prison after an extended period of time is a complicated and difficult one. When judges and parole board experts agree that someone should no longer be incarcerated, that person should be allowed to return home. Yet their decisions are currently blocked by one-size-fits-all federal rules and by governors afraid of political backlash. We must allow judges and parole experts to take a second look at individual cases and return those who do pose little threat to public safety to their communities.
Across the country, wrongful convictions lead to million-dollar settlements,28 guilty individuals remaining on the loose while others are tried for their crimes, and hostile police-community relations. Many of these wrongful convictions occur because the public defender system is so gravely underfunded that many defendants living in poverty do not receive a competent defense. We must ensure that individuals are incarcerated not because they lack a competent legal defense but because they need to be incarcerated.
- Successful Reintegration
Finally, the Law Enforcement Action Partnership supports programs, both in prison and after release, that reduce recidivism by ensuring that each prisoner’s reentry is productive and safe for his or her community.
We must provide education, job training, life skills, counseling, treatment, and mental health care so that prisoners are equipped to get their lives back on track upon release. Among other successes, education programs in prison have been shown to reduce recidivism by 8-10 percent.29
When offenders return to their community, their probation and parole officers’ primary job should be to prevent them from re-offending. Effective prevention often means providing offenders with resources to confront the mental health and drug addiction issues generally at the root of their criminal behavior. Yet most jurisdictions fail to equip their probation and parole officers with these tools. As a result, roughly a third of the people entering prison every year are probationers and parolees.30 Most of them are returned to prison not for committing a new crime but for technical rule violations like leaving the jurisdiction, using technology without permission, or accepting an unauthorized job.31 We should stop automatically refilling prisons with people who do not pose a public safety risk and instead equip probation and parole officers with the tools they need to confront these offenders’ root issues.
In the name of protecting the public, states block 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, and many in fact hurt public safety by increasing the chance that individuals with convictions end up unemployed and/or homeless. The more individuals feel like these barriers cut off their opportunities, the more likely they are to return to crime. We can reduce recidivism 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, sometimes for the rest of their lives. These restrictions do nothing to improve public safety. The Constitutional right to vote should never be stripped from any American who has already paid his or her debt to society.
Private prisons are evaluated not on the quality of their services or the recidivism rates of their prisoners, but rather on the profits they create. To minimize costs, many private prisons operate understaffed and cut programs that reduce recidivism after offenders are released, making both prisons and society in general more dangerous.32
The Law Enforcement Action Partnership opposes private prisons, because their shortcuts to save money come at the direct expense of public safety.
For sources, and with any other questions, please contact OurIssues@LawEnforcementAction.org
Prison Population Forecaster
Use the Urban Institute's forecaster to explore how policy changes could affect state prison populations. Adjust prison admissions and term lengths. Customize your choices by state and by type of offense. Compare your forecast with the latest year of data or what’s expected (the baseline) in 2025. And save and share what you find.
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.
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://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/page/files/20160423_cea_incarceration_criminal_justice.pdf.
Annie E. Casey Foundation. “A Shared Sentence.” Annie E. Casey Foundation Policy Report, April 2016. Accessed 24 May 2017 at http://www.aecf.org/m/resourcedoc/aecf-asharedsentence-2016.pdf
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/.
Alexander, Amy. “Why Children With Parents in Prison Are Especially Burdened.” The Atlantic, 14 Dec 2015. Accessed 19 May 2017 at https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/12/why-children-with-parents-in-prison-are-especially-burdened/433638/
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.
- 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.
- http://repec.iza.org/dp5000.pdf http://www.centerforpubliceducation.org/Main-Menu/Pre-kindergarten/Pre-Kindergarten/Pre-kindergarten-What-the-research-shows.html
- http://static.prisonpolicy.org/scans/ojjdp/195737.pdf https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3083990/
- 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
- 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.
- 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
- Alliance for Safety and Justice. “Crime Survivors Speak: The First-Ever National Survey on Victims’ Views on Safety and Justice.” Alliance for Safety and Justice report, 2016. Accessed 2 Jun 2017 at https://www.allianceforsafetyandjustice.org/wp-content/uploads/documents/Crime%20Survivors%20Speak%20Report.pdf
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- William J. Sabol and Heather Courture, Prison Inmates at Midyear 2007 (Bureau of Justice Statistics Bulletin NCJ 221944) (Washington, D.C.: Bureau of Justice Statistics, June 2008), 5. Accessed 5 Oct 2018 at https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/pim07.pdf
- Barton, Gina. “No new conviction, but sent back to prison.” Milwaukee Wisconisn Journal-Sentinel, 17 Jan 2015. Accessed 2 Jun 2017 at http://archive.jsonline.com/watchdog/watchdogreports/no-new-conviction-but-sent-back-to-prison-b99420782z1-288939871.html
See: Prison Legal News, “Report: How Private Prison Companies Cut Corners to Generate Profit,” August 2016, (https://www.prisonlegalnews.org/news/2016/aug/2/report-how-private-prison-companies-cut-corners-generate-profit/) and Jen Kalaidis, “Are for-profit prisons more dangerous than traditional prisons?” The Week, July 3, 2013 (http://theweek.com/articles/462921/are-forprofit-prisons-more-dangerous-than-traditional-prisons)