Saving Money and Reducing Recidivism in Prisons


It's a Russian writer, Fyodor Dostoevsky, who said that "the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons."

But what does it say about U.S. society that so many of our ex-felons return for another stint?

The United States has the highest incarceration rates in the world, at 716 prisoners per 100,000 citizens. The U.S. incarceration rate far surpasses that of any other nation, the second highest being Cuba(!) at 510 per 100,000.

At the state level, the rate is often higher. Louisiana, for example, is the world’s prison capital with an incarceration rate of 1,341 per 100,000 according to the Prison Policy Initiative.

States, counties, and the federal government's massive prison systems use billions of taxpayer dollars every year. Yet how well are these large prison systems working? Recidivism rates — the number of released inmates who are sent back to prison — are upward of 80 percent within five years.

The mass incarceration approach simply is not an effective deterrent. But why not?

A big reason is that many prisoners are idle in prison, due to their own choice or a lack of programming resources. When prisoners are 'warehoused,' it diminishes their chances for success in landing a job and desisting from crime after they get released. A recent study found that warehousing increased the likelihood of recidivism by 13 percent.

Grant Duwe, research director of the Minnesota Department of Corrections and an academic adviser on criminal justice reform at the American Enterprise Institute, argues that opportunities to reduce recidivism are present when imprisonment includes rehabilitation aimed to proactively help ex-prisoners live a clean life after they are released.

A large body of research, known as the “what works” literature, has shown that recidivism outcomes for prisoners are much better when they participate in interventions that target known risk factors for reoffending. Effective interventions include substance abuse treatment, cognitive-behavioral therapy, sex offender treatment, and education and employment programs.

Equipping current prisoners to live upstanding lives after their release is something to consider and is indeed the point of institutionalization. Admittedly, training programs are expensive, and many prisons are at the edge of their financial capacity due to the sheer number of inmates.

The solution then lies in reducing the prison population, but how?

The best way to reduce prison admissions safely would be to restrict probation and parole violators (about two-thirds of all prison admissions) to the more serious offenders who are, as it is, more likely to get longer revocations. The less serious violators, who are more likely to get warehoused due to their relatively brief sentences, should remain in the community. ...

When individuals enter prison, it should be long enough to participate in effective programming, which usually lasts between three and nine months.

Fewer inmates means reduced costs, but it's not merely a financial equation. Longer prison sentences are not effective as a means to deter crime.

While lengthy periods of imprisonment may prompt some prisoners to reflect on their crimes and find remorse, the truth is that inmates with long sentences are likely to be warehoused for much of their confinement. For inmates with longer sentences who have participated in multiple effective interventions, trimming their confinement periods would generate decarceration “savings” that, once again, should be reinvested to increase the delivery of prison programming.

It will take a massive shift in ideology and practice to enact such criminal justice reform, but as Duwe argues, it is necessary to ensure that resources are being used effectively in punishment of crimes, and rehabilitation of criminals.

Increasing the misery of the prison experience may satisfy the impulse for retribution, but it doesn’t lead to an efficient use of taxpayer dollars. If we want prisons to be leaner, cost-effective and successful in reducing recidivism, we need reform based on what’s been shown to work.

Do you think shorter prison sentences could be effective in preventing repeat offenses?