The United States is in a crisis on many fronts — from the economy, to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to health care — so it’s not surprising that the state of our criminal justice system has been overlooked. [IMGCAP(1)]
However, our country has placed people in prison and jail more than any other country, so that we incarcerate 2.3 million people at a cost of approximately $65 billion a year. With the financial problems facing federal, state, local and territorial governments, it’s time to take another look at our criminal justice policies and priorities.
Given the economic downturn, it’s critical for all government entities to be spending their limited resources wisely. Nine states facing budget crises are already considering closing prisons or reducing staff, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Meanwhile, other states are cutting back on programs aimed at keeping inmates out of jail once they’re released, such as vocational training and GED programs.
Cutting back on the expenses of running prisons by eliminating guards can endanger prison safety, putting both employees and prisoners at risk. And trimming drug treatment and parole programs will only increase recidivism rates. Nationally, 53 percent of ex-prisoners are re-incarcerated, according to an Urban Institute report. Strategies that deter recidivism rates are re-entry programs, drug and alcohol counseling therapy, and employment counseling and assistance, all starting in prison and continuing upon release. Cutting these programs will lead to more recidivism, more victims and more incarceration that could be avoided were the programs maintained.
The American Bar Association recently adopted policy calling for a national study of criminal justice issues facing all American jurisdictions. The proposed study would examine ways to reduce crime, lower incarceration rates, save taxpayer money, enhance the fairness and accuracy of criminal justice outcomes, and increase public confidence in the administration of the criminal justice system.
The policy calls on Congress to adopt legislation, similar to the National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2009 introduced by Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) in March of this year, to develop a commission to evaluate and propose any necessary changes in the way we operate our criminal justice system.
We can reduce the costs of the criminal justice system by implementing alternatives to traditional incarceration for non-violent criminals — such as residential programs, electronic house arrest, community service or outpatient treatment programs. According to the Pew Center on the States, it costs an average of $79 a day to keep an inmate in prison but roughly $3.50 a day to monitor the same person on probation or parole.
Virginia is one state that has had success in shifting 25 percent of its drug and property offenders to alternative, non-incarceration settings through using an empirically based risk assessment. Sixty-three percent of the more than 1 million felony convictions that occur each year in state courts are property and drug offenses. Other states may benefit from examining what Virginia has done.
In response to the call to “get tough on crime— during the 1980s, mandatory minimum sentencing was implemented, denying judges the flexibility to factor in the circumstances of the offense and the characteristics of the defendant in sentencing. These rules resulted in severe incarceration penalties applying to both extreme offenders and less culpable ones. Included in this disparity has been a stark imbalance between low-level drug offenders and major traffickers in such a way that a low-level offenders who are good candidates for drug treatment and who pose little danger to the community receive the same lengthy prison sentences as major drug traffickers.
As Attorney General Eric Holder stated when he addressed the ABA’s policymaking House of Delegates earlier this month, it’s time to be not only tough on crime but also smart on crime. One way to do so is to re-evaluate our criminal justice system and the policies that have proved to be ineffective as well as costly in terms of dollars and lives.
To be smart we need to look not only to alternative punishments and treatments, we also need to examine the effects of a conviction on former offenders who have served their sentences and paid their debts to society. For example, the policy that the ABA adopted calls for looking at the impact of collateral consequences on former offenders and examining whether some can be removed to permit individuals returning home to find housing, a job and to improve their education and job skills. There is much that can be done, and now is the time to start.
Carolyn Lamm is president of the American Bar Association.