Incarceration

Overview

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. What will improve public safety is creating programs that address the root causes of crime and allowing judges to hand down sentences crafted to reduce the risk of re-offending.

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
Even for those we do need to incarcerate, one-size-fits-all laws have made many of their sentences counterproductively long.

By failing to prevent these problems and relying on these imperfect criminal justice tools, we are reducing public safety in four ways. First, since incarceration does not confront the root issues of mental illness and drug addiction, many offenders continue to commit crime upon release. Second, incarceration severs healthy relationships with family and community, pushes prisoners to join gangs for their own safety, and deprives their children of a parent. Third, branding these individuals with a permanent criminal record prevents them from becoming responsible citizens by creating barriers to legal employment, housing, and education. Finally, clogging the system with people who committed preventable offenses diverts resources from investigating, prosecuting, and rehabilitating those who commit serious, violent crime—rehabilitation that is often desperately needed, since almost everyone in prison eventually gets out.

Learn More: Full Overview

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. What will improve public safety is creating programs that address the root causes of crime and allowing judges to hand down sentences crafted to reduce the risk of re-offending.

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.2
Even for those we do need to incarcerate, one-size-fits-all laws have made many of their sentences counterproductively long.

By failing to prevent these problems and relying on these imperfect criminal justice tools, we are reducing public safety in four ways. First, since incarceration does not confront the root issues of mental illness and drug addiction, many offenders continue to commit crime upon release. Second, incarceration severs healthy relationships with family and community, pushes prisoners to join gangs for their own safety, and deprives their children of a parent. Third, branding these individuals with a permanent criminal record prevents them from becoming responsible citizens by creating barriers to legal employment, housing, and education. Finally, clogging the system with people who committed preventable offenses diverts resources from investigating, prosecuting, and rehabilitating those who commit serious, violent crime—rehabilitation that is often desperately needed, since almost everyone in prison eventually gets out.

For more than four decades, 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. 3 Though they are not equipped for it, jails and prisons have become our country’s largest mental health and drug treatment providers.4

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 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.5 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.6 Finally, branding more people with a criminal record increases recidivism by blocking legal employment, housing, and education—key ingredients for building stable, responsible lives.

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.7

Solutions

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 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 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.

Arizona, Kentucky, DC, and New Jersey have returned to a system focused on public safety by replacing financial bail with individualized risk assessments. Their judges now combine risk data with their own knowledge of each case to decide whether a defendant should be released or held in jail. By making decisions based on public safety, not personal finances, these jurisdictions are able to send more people home to their families and keep those who present a threat off the streets.

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.8 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.9 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.

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.10

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.11 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.12 Since victims are most concerned with stopping the perpetrator from reoffending and ensuring that they take responsibility for the harm they caused,13 restorative conferences also improve victim satisfaction.14

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.15 While white and black people use and sell drugs at similar rates,16 black people are significantly more likely to be arrested, convicted, and incarcerated on drug charges.17 Studies show that most people perceive black children as older and guiltier than white children18 and support harsher punishment when an offender is black.19

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.

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.

  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 athttp://www.correctionalassociation.org/resource/substance-abuse-treatment-in-new-york-prisons.
  2. 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 athttp://www.correctionalassociation.org/resource/substance-abuse-treatment-in-new-york-prisons.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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. Arizona Department of Corrections. “Admissions, Releases, Confined Population Fact Sheet.” Arizona Department of Corrections website, 2017. Accessed 2 Jun 2017 at https://corrections.az.gov/sites/default/files/REPORTS/Inmate_Population/inmatepopfactsheet2016_063016-formatted.pdf James, Nathan. “Offender Reentry: Correctional Statistics, Reintegration into the Community, and Recividism.” Congressional Research Service report, 12 Jan 2015. Accessed 2 Jun 2017 at https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/RL34287.pdf
  9. 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
  10. 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
  11. 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.
  12. 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
  13. 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
  14. 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
  15. 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.
  16. 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.
  17. 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.
  18. 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.
  19. 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.