Real Cost Of Prisons
Excerpts from speech:
It is imperative that we get smart on crime now, for much has changed since some of our basic, governing assumptions about criminal law enforcement were developed. In the middle years of the twentieth century, America went through an historic increase in crime and illegal drug use. In the 1960s and 70s, the overall crime rate increased more than five-fold. Violent crime nearly quadrupled. The murder rate doubled. And heroin, cocaine and other illegal drug use surged.
Many lawmakers in the 1980s responded by declaring, in rhetoric and in legislation, that we needed to get tough on crime. States passed truth-in-sentencing and three strikes and you’re out laws. Some state parole boards became more cautious, while other states eliminated discretionary parole altogether. The federal government adopted severe mandatory minimum sentencing laws, eliminated parole, and developed the federal sentencing guidelines.
The federal government and states spent billions of dollars in new prison construction. The result was dramatic: the number of inmates in American prisons has increased seven-fold since 1970. Today, one out of every 100 adults in America is incarcerated – the highest incarceration rate in the world.
Few would dispute that public safety requires incarceration, and that imprisonment is at least partially responsible for the dramatic drop in crime rates nationwide in recent decades. By 2007, the nation’s violent crime rate had dropped by almost 40% from its peak in 1991. But just as everyone should concede that incarceration is part of the answer, everyone should also concede that it is not the whole answer. Simply stated, imprisonment is not a complete strategy for criminal law enforcement.
To begin with, high rates of incarceration have tremendous social costs. And, of course, there also is the matter of simple dollars and cents, and the principle of diminishing marginal returns. Every state in the union is trying to trim budgets. States and localities are laying off teachers and canceling sanitation department shifts, but in almost all cases, spending on prisons continues to increase. Not only is this unsustainable economically, but it is also not proving to be effective at fighting crime. For while prison building and prison spending continue to increase, public safety is not improving. Since 2003, spending on incarceration has continued to rise, but crime rates have flattened. Indeed, crime rates appear to have reached a plateau, and no longer respond to increases in incarceration.
So what can we do to lower the crime rate further, to make American communities safer, to get smarter on crime? We need new tools – and one way to develop new tools is to look several steps past getting people into prison, and to consider what happens to people after they leave prison and reenter society.
We know that offenders who have participated in the federal Bureau of Prisons’ residential drug abuse treatment program are 16% less likely to be re-arrested, have their supervision revoked, and be returned to prison, than similar inmates who did not receive such treatment before their reentry into society. They are also less likely to use drugs once released. We also know that inmates who work in prison industries are 24% less likely to commit crimes again, compared to inmates who have not participated in such programs – which, incidentally, operate at no cost to the taxpayer. The Bureau of Prisons’ educational programs designed to address educational deficiencies – ranging from Adult Basic Education to high school level classes – are also effective in reducing recidivism: inmates who participate in these programs are 16% less likely to commit crime again as compared to their non-participating peers. And inmates who are released through halfway houses are more likely to be gainfully employed, and therefore less likely to commit crime again, as compared to inmates who are released from prison directly to the community.
That recitation of statistics might not sound exciting, but what we do with it is. We rely upon evidence-based methods to innovate in agriculture, transportation, environmental safety, and public health – and it is my belief, that the Department of Justice likewise should embrace modern, evidence-based methods for developing policy.
In particular, it is critical that we work to develop policies – rooted in data – to address what happens after incarceration. For the statistics I cited are even more compelling when coupled with another fact: most crimes in America are committed by persons who have committed crime before. About 67% of former state prisoners and 40% of former federal prisoners are rearrested within three years. Logically, if we reduce the recidivism rate, we will directly lower the crime rate. Even a modest reduction in recidivism rates would prevent thousands of crimes and save hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars. In other words, being smart on crime means understanding that our work does not end when prison time begins.
Smart risk assessments can identify which offenders can safely remain in their communities and which require continued detention and more intensive supervision. Data analysis can determine which offenders pose a higher recidivism risk based on the type of crime the offender was charged with and the offender’s prior record. For example, risk assessments might determine that removing a 16-year-old, non-violent, first-time offender from his family and school and placing him in a juvenile detention facility is a bad idea because it would actually increase the risk of recidivism, and waste taxpayer dollars besides.
One specific area where I think we can do a much better job by looking beyond incarceration is in the way we deal with non-violent drug offenses. We know that people convicted of drug possession or the sales of small amounts of drugs comprise a significant portion of the prison population. Indeed, in my thirty years in law enforcement, I have seen far too many young people lose their claim to a future by committing non-violent drug crimes.
One promising, viable solution to the devastating effect of drugs on the criminal justice system and on American communities is the implementation of more drug treatment courts. Drug court programs provide an alternative to incarceration for non-violent offenders by focusing on treatment of their underlying addiction. Program participants are placed in treatment and routinely tested for drug use – with the imposition of immediate sanctions for positive tests balanced with suitable incentives to encourage abstinence from drug use. These programs give no one a free pass. They are strict and can be extraordinarily difficult to get through. But for those who succeed, there is the real prospect of a productive future.
New York has been a leader in this area, diverting some non-violent offenders into drug court programs and away from prison, and extending early release to other non-violent offenders who participate in treatment programs. And while national prison populations have consistently increased, in New York the state prison population has dropped steadily and has 12,000 fewer inmates now than it did in 1999. And since 1999, the overall crime rate in New York has dropped 27%. Other states have followed New York’s example. And most importantly, studies show significant reductions in re-arrests, from about 15 to 30 percentage points, for drug-court participants as compared to criminals simply incarcerated.