Coming to ConsciousnessIn a steep recession, confronting the fiscal and human costs of incarceration has become unavoidable. Today, one in thirty-one adults is under some form of correctional control, either in jail, in prison, or on probation or parole. The statistics are even starker and more troubling for African Americans and men because of disproportionate incarceration: One in eighteen men and one in eleven African Americans are under correctional control. There is widespread concern among criminal justice experts that we have reached a tipping point where such high rates of imprisonment may buy us less safety and even be criminogenic.As more and more people are incarcerated, not only the most dangerous are locked away. The efficacy of the incapacitation strategy is diminished because lower-risk people are also warehoused away rather than doing good in their communities as fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, sons, and daughters. In disadvantaged communities where the vast proportion of imprisoned people originate, imprisonment decimates social and family structures that supply the bonds and nurturing against lawbreaking. High rates of incarceration therefore can be criminogenic outside prison walls, in disadvantaged communities, as well as within the pressure cooker of prisons.For these diminishing or even perverse returns, the fiscal burden is crippling. The bill for incarceration has swelled dramatically as incarceration surged 240 percent between 1980 and 2008. The nation spent $75 billion on corrections in 2008—the majority of the money on incarceration. The $68 billion total spent on prisons was a 336 percent increase from the amount two and a half decades ago. Prisons have become the nation’s second fastest-growing general fund expenditure. To house just one prisoner in 2005, taxpayers spent an average of $23,876 a year. These steep costs are unsustainable in a deep recession and halting recovery when at least forty-two states and the District of Columbia are struggling with at least $103 billion in budget shortfalls.
Searching for AlternativesThe pressures of cutting costs are changing the meaning and political momentum for seeking alternatives to incarceration in many states. About half of the states have adjusted early release and parole programs and sentencing laws or have plans to do so. Putting people back in the community early puts the emphasis on the important question of how we prepare people to reintegrate in the community. Some recent legislation offer examples of recalibrating incentives to foster rehabilitation and reintegration.For example, in 2008, Pennsylvania passed the Recidivism Risk Reduction Act, which allows for a reduction of up to a quarter of the sentence of a nonviolent offender as an incentive to attend rehabilitative programs. (Pa. Code tit. 61, ch. 45, §§ 4504–06 (2008).) The legislation is projected to help save $71.5 million in five years. At the time, severe overcrowding was forcing the state to construct four new prisons at $200 million each. In a striking change from the tough-on-crime politics that had dominated the Pennsylvania legislature since the 1980s, the incentive for rehabilitation was widely backed by criminal justice insiders, including prosecutors, police, and prison officials.In August 2009, Colorado officials launched early release initiatives intended to save the state $19 million and to help redress a $318 million budgetary shortfall. Colorado’s House Bill 1352, enacted after bipartisan sponsorship, also reduces the penalties for drug possession and use crimes. (Colo. Rev. Stat. Ann. §§ 18-18-401 to 18-18-406.) The legislation’s statement of purpose explains:Successful, community-based substance abuse treatment and education programs, in conjunction with mental health treatment as necessary, provide effective tools in the effort to reduce drug usage and criminal behavior in communities. Therapeutic intervention and ongoing individualized treatment plans prepared through the use of meaningful and proven assessment tools and evaluations offer a potential alternative to incarceration in appropriate circumstances and should be utilized accordingly. (Colo. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 18-18-401(b), (c) (2011).)One of the bill’s sponsors, Republican Representative Mike Waller, a former prosecutor, explained, “It’s time to switch our focus from being tough on crime to being smart on crime. This bill is about how we can get the best bang for our public-safety dollars.” Demonstrating a bipartisan coming to consciousness, Representative Waller stated, “I’m convinced that warehousing people who are addicts doesn’t do anything to solve the problem.”Budgetary pressures may also build political will to explore sentencing alternatives, such as house arrest. In Mississippi, for example, budgetary pressures led the Department of Corrections to increase the number of nonviolent drug offenders serving time under house arrest rather than parole. According to Mississippi Department of Corrections figures, in fiscal year 2007, putting an offender in the intensive supervision program under house arrest cost an average of $9.96 per day compared to $45.48 a day to house a prisoner in the state penitentiary. The difference represents a nearly fivefold savings for each prisoner per day.The search for alternatives to incarceration in the nonviolent drug offender context has also led to the increasing popularity of drug courts. Well before the present economic contraction, drug courts began in the 1980s as a tactic to relieve some of the pressures of high drug caseloads overburdening the courts. Drug courts represent a break from the punitive approach to incarcerating those with substance abuse problems, adopting a disease model and giving incentives to engage and succeed in treatment to avoid incarceration. Criminal justice actors, including judges, act alternately as cheerleaders and “tough love” providers toward overcoming the problem and reducing the risk of recidivism. Avoiding or reducing prison time is an important incentive for successful completion of rehabilitative programming.Because of the success of drug courts, the notion of mental health courts is also gaining political traction. Mental health courts are also anchored in a therapeutic model. Approaches vary in the jurisdictions experimenting with this alternative model. In general, however, the goal is to offer an alternative to the traditional penal model to provide incentives for treatment that address the root problems of lawbreaking and reduce recidivism. The hope is to stop the expensive recycling of people through the system because root problems are not redressed.
A Precarious TimeWhile budgetary pressures may create political conditions conducive to exploring alternatives to incarceration, the need to slash and burn also may imperil promising programs. For example, Kentucky is phasing out its family and drug court to address a $7 million deficit as part of short-term cost-cutting measures with long-term consequences.Kansas also has cut important therapeutic programs for reducing
recidivism and breaking the cycle of reoffending. Though as many as 80 percent of inmates in the Kansas system have substance abuse problems and 40 percent can be considered addicts, Kansas cut its substance abuse treatment programs. The state also slashed community residential programs that help the mentally ill transition back to the regular population after serving their sentence and stay on their medications, thereby posing less of a risk of harm to others and themselves.Backlash against back-end sentence reductions, such as expanding early release, has in some instances led to attempts to cut costs in less politically perilous ways by slashing rehabilitative programs. Colorado, for example, recently cut $1.9 million in funding for prisoner treatment programs for substance abuse and mental health problems to address its budgetary woes after an expanded early release program to save money got off to a rocky and controversial start and few inmates were actually released. As budgetary shortfalls lead to recurrent states of emergency or urgent program cuts, the danger is misaimed slashes to relieve short-term pain at the expense of long-term pathologies.