Alternative Punishment for a Population of Inmates
Alternate Corrections Program Proposal
The need for a major overhaul of the U.S. prison system, and its purpose, is becoming increasingly recognized by human rights organizations around the world (for example, see Bewley-Taylor, Hallam, and Allen, 2009; Pew Center on the States [Pew Center], 2010). Prior to 1972, the size of the prison population in the United States predictably tracked the growth rate in the general population, but during the past 38 years has grown by 705% (ibid., p. 1). In contrast, the U.S. population grew by less than 44% during the same period (U.S. Census Bureau, 2011, p. 1). If we include the number of Americans currently under community supervision, then about 1 in 31 Americans is under some form of correctional control today (Pew Charitable Trusts, 2009, p. 1; U.S. Department of Justice [U.S. DOJ], 2010, p. 2).
The dramatic increase in the prison population over the past 38 years has been attributed to the reemergence of Puritan values towards punishment and a rejection of rehabilitation as an effective intervention (Cusac, 2009, pp. 171-173). At the legislative and executive levels this attitude theoretically led to stiffer sentencing guidelines, longer sentences served (Pew Center, 2009, p. 1), and the War on Drugs (Bewley-Taylor, Hallam, and Allen, 2009, pp. 2-4). Other factors that may be driving the unprecedented increase in the U.S. prison population during the 1970s and 1980s include the maturing of the "Baby Boom" generation into their teens and early adulthood, which is the age when criminal activity is most likely to occur, and the negative influence of the Civil Rights and the anti-Vietnam War movements on respect for government authority (Blumstein and Wallman, 2000, p. 4).
Since the mid-1990s violent crime rates have declined substantially (U.S. DOJ, 2011), a trend that is consistent with the baby boom generation entering middle age and the relegation of the 1960s Civil Rights and Peace movements to the history books. Despite this substantial decrease in crime rates the rate of prison population expansion continued to outpace general population growth (Pew Center, 2009, p. 1), which suggests the primary forces behind a growing correctional system was legislative.
The cost to American taxpayers has been staggering. After increasing by an estimated 336% between 1996 and 2006, the cost to taxpayers per year rose to an estimated 68 billion dollars, becoming the second most costly social program behind Medicare (Pew Charitable Trusts, 2009, p. 11).When analyzed using a cost-benefit approach, locking up the most violent, repeat offenders is well supported, but when incarcerating nearly half of all entering prisoners cost more to society than it's worth, then this explains in part the 312 billion dollar deficit state budgets are currently struggling with (ibid., pp. 17-20). For example, it was estimated the state of Washington averts 37 cents of crime-related costs to society for every dollar spent locking up non-violent drug offenders. A theoretical "tipping point" probably lies somewhere between 207 and 397 inmates per 100,000 residents, since incarcerating a greater percentage of the population seems to provide little benefit and may even lead to increased criminal activity. The current incarceration rate is around 506 per 100,000 citizens, which implies that releasing half of the state and federal prison population would have little or no negative impact on society and may even improve crime rates further (Pew Charitable Trusts, 2009, p. 21).
Designing 'Punishment' for the Half Remaining in Prison
Nearly half of the prison population can therefore be transitioned to community supervision or have their sentences commuted. The inmates eligible for early release would be non-violent, minor offenders, or first-time minor offenders with little risk of repeating an offense. The release of these inmates would cut in half the current corrections budget, thus freeing up tens of billions of dollars for reducing state budget deficits, funding community supervision, and expanding other social services proven effective in reducing recidivism.
Society's primary concern regarding the remaining inmates is the administration of a just punishment for the crime committed and the prevention of recidivism once released. The first concern is primarily determined by the courts and is beyond the scope of this essay. As prison reformers though, recidivism is our primary concern.
Recidivism rates are astonishingly high, with close to 30% reoffending within six months of release and nearly 60% within two years (Vito, Tewksbury, and Higgins, 2010, p. 22). It would be easy to assume that these rates reflect fatal flaws in the character of these inmates and therefore approach rehabilitation programs designed to reduce recidivism with a sense of futility (Cusac, 2009, pp. 171-176). A large body of social science research suggests this sense of futility is based on ignorance and not the substantial amount of evidence showing that the environment, or system, plays a prominent, if not dominant role in determining how a person will behave in society (Zimbardo, 2007, pp. 216-261). If we view recidivism rates instead from a social science or evidence-based perspective, then the high recidivism rates actually represent a failure of the system, rather than an inmate's character. This view also implies that reducing recidivism rates is possible by changing how the system and society views and treats inmates during incarceration and post-release.
Reducing Recidivism Rates using Evidence-Based Programs
The social science perspective assumes that crime is primarily the result of failures in society, rather than a failure in the character of the criminal. If this perspective is incorporated into prisoner rehabilitation efforts then the focus of incarceration for any prisoner eligible for eventual release will shift from punishment to rehabilitation. In effect, prisoners will no longer be treated as the sole agents of their fate once incarcerated, but as victims of a society or system that has failed them. The goal of prison rehabilitation will therefore be to rectify society's failures as much as possible given the circumstances, and the 'punishment' will be limited to a loss of freedom and engaging in rehabilitative programs. The proposed rehabilitative programs include comprehensive mental health services, effective drug and alcohol addiction treatment programs, access to GED and college level classes, improved prison living conditions, and a merit system for rehabilitation program advancement.
Comprehensive Mental Health Services
Upon entry into the prison all inmates will be required to undergo a comprehensive and confidential psychological evaluation by a team of mental health professionals. The goals of this evaluation will include stratifying how dangerous the inmate is to society, identifying treatable psychiatric conditions, and recommending a short-term and long-term course for counseling and rehabilitation. For prisoners not transitioned into a mental health facility for further evaluation and treatment, this initial evaluation will serve as the foundation for prisoner rehabilitation for the foreseeable future. The team of mental health professionals will periodically meet with the inmate during their stay in prison as part of an aftercare program, to ensure the prisoner takes advantage of any and all programs offered.
Rehabilitation Program Merit System
Prisoners will be encouraged to take advantage of provided counseling services using a merit system that includes sentence reductions, access to more advanced educational and vocational opportunities, prison job promotions, employment counseling and services, monetary rewards, eligibility for work release programs, day passes, better accommodations, etc.… The merit system will be used to promote enrolling and remaining in various rehabilitation programs, with the value of the reward proportional to the predicted value of the particular program to the inmate. For example, psychological counseling would be valued highly by the merit system, since it can reduce recidivism from 10-23%, depending on the nature of an inmate's personal and criminal history (Olver, Stockdale, and Wormith, 2011).
Addiction Treatment Program
An estimated 50-80% of inmates abuse drugs or alcohol and a strong link between substance abuse and criminal activity has been established (MacKenzie, 2006, p. 253). A variety of programs have been instituted in prison, including therapeutic communities and group counseling. The most effective modality for reducing recidivism rates appears to be starting treatment in a therapeutic community while incarcerated and continuing participation after release (ibid., p. 265). This type of program can reduce recidivism by up to 10% for all types of programs combined, but this can be increased to 14% if the inmate participate in therapeutic communities (ibid., p. 256).
GED and Beyond
The federal prison system and several state prison systems have mandatory literacy programs and at the federal level this means passing a GED test (MacKenzie, 2006, p. 71). The establishment of these requirements happened before the publication of most studies examining the effectiveness of education on recidivism. More recently, a meta-analysis of published studies found that adult education and GED classes, or college level classes, reduced recidivism by 18% or 26%, respectively (MacKenzie, 2006, p. 77). The increased effectiveness of college classes, when compared to a GED, may be a function of a contemporary job market that places increasing emphasis on a college education (Zgoba, Haugebrook, and Jenkins, 2008, p. 385).
Employability and the level of education achieved by an inmate…