Despite our best intentions, mass incarceration is increasing drug use, theft, murder, and rape in all neighborhoods.
We have prisons and imprison people with the intention of making our cities, neighborhoods, and families safer. However, recent research shows that imprisoning too many people or imprisoning people for too long makes our cities, neighborhoods, and families less safe.
The bottom line is imprisoning too many people for too long makes all our cities, neighborhoods, and families less safe.
Violent criminals like rapists and murderers make up only a fraction of a fraction of a percentage of all convicts. So how do we incarcerate as few people as possible, but not fewer?
Let’s start with the Non’s:
1. Non-Violent, Non-Sexual, Non-Serious
The next lowest hanging fruit for making our communities safer is to stop imprisoning the Non’s — non-violent, non-serious, non-sexual offenders.
Take “public order” convictions (which are generally non-violent and non-serious). They used to account for 1.9% of the prison population in 1972, now public order convictions accounts for 13.8% of the prison population (procon.org).
Instead of prison, these folks should be on probation/parole, or their public order conviction should be punished through through Restorative Justice practices. These people might need to spend a few days in jail, but they should not be spending time in prison.
2. Non-Violent Recidivists
It might be a surprise but 46% of prisoners are there due to non-violent breaking of their parole or probation. This is called recidivism and it represents the next low hanging fruit for reducing the prison population. The problem is not the parolee’s, the problem is the antiquated and sometimes darkly backward parole and probation system itself.
In an age where a parole officer could know the exact GPS location of each of her wards and be in direct text/phone/video communication with them at all times, why are we locking people back up again because they cross state lines, fail to pay their prison fines, or smoke pot?
Just by reforming and updating our parole and probation systems we can rely reduce a large chunk of our prison population overnight. A big improvement would to use Restorative Justice practices inside the parole and probation system (more on this below).
3. The Mentally Ill
In a 2006 Special Report, the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) estimated that 705,600 mentally ill adults were incarcerated in state prisons, 78,800 in federal prisons and 479,900 in local jails — a total of 1,264,300 or roughly half of our total 2.6M prisoners. How can this be?
In 1959, nearly 559,000 mentally ill patients were housed in state mental hospitals. A shift to “deinstitutionalize” mentally ill persons had, by the late 1990s, dropped the number of persons housed in public psychiatric hospitals to approximately 70,000. (http://nicic.gov/mentalillness)
We have the opportunity today to use successful models from Scandinavia and around the world to rebuild our mental health services based on community-based services and public mental hospitals.
Through public mental health services reform, we can reasonably expect for the prison system to shed a large percentage of these seriously mentally ill prisoners.
4. Drug Addiction is an Illness
Trafficking drugs is a crime, being addicted to drugs is an illness. Drug addiction (including alcoholism) can and should be treated and managed with medication, therapy, and monitoring.
65% of prisoners meet the medical criteria for substance abuse (Washington Post 2014). However, treatment for addiction in prisons is not available or substandard.
Treating drug addiction is another fantastic opportunity to make our homes, streets, and communities safer.
5. (Not so) Violent Crimes and the Opportunity for Restorative Justice
Restorative Justice is a powerful and transformative process where victims and perpetrators have dialogue and perpetrators are required to make the victims and society whole rather than just rot in a cell.
Restorative Justice can be used effectively at any level of conflict all the way up to capital crimes. Let’s look at some not-so-violent crimes and brainstorm how restorative justice could provide superior outcomes in our justice system than punitive measures.
Should we incarcerate third degree burglaries where no one was physically harmed?
I was burgled while I slept in my bed in 2012 and the experience left me feeling violated, fearful, angry, and prejudiced against the predominantly Hispanic and Black people in the bars across from my house. Would I felt as bad if there would have been a restorative justice around my burglary? My items would have been returned or paid for. I would have learned about the perpetrator’s life and understood better what happened. The perpetrator would have seen me and understood how it made me feel to have my home violated.
Restorative justice is a system of criminal justice that helps the victim heal psychologically while helping the perpetrator to reform. Did I need the person who burgled my house to go to prison? No. Would understanding what happened remove the fear and anger I harbored for months after? I believe, Yes.
Should we incarcerate involuntary man slaughter and third degree murder (murder committed in a passion without premeditation)? How can the perpetrators of these crimes make society and their victim’s families whole again? Research shows that restorative justice, even in some cases that involve violence, can lead to consequences outside of incarceration.
Should we incarcerate people who steal money through fraud and other “white collar” crimes. Fraudsters can make their victims whole through fines and liens on their future income. Through restorative justice, the community and the offender has the chance to examine and remedy the underlying causes and conditions that gave rise to the fraudulent behavior. Moreover, once caught, fraudsters can be flagged as potential repeat offenders. Why put them in jail when they can still be productive members of society?
6. Legalization, Prevention, and Education
We’ve talked about existing prisoners, but let’s go back to the causes of the problem of imprisonment: crime. How do we reduce crime?
The fastest way to have fewer criminals is to have fewer crimes. The fastest way to have fewer crimes is to have fewer laws with less severe punishments.By reducing the number and extent of laws, and reducing their punishments and repealing three strikes and mandator minimum sentencing, we take the initial, simplest, and most promising step of reducing the prison population.
Crimes arise from predictable sets of causes and conditions. Research from the federal HeadStart program showed that early childhood education especially reduces criminality throughout life. Funding early childhood education doesn’t just sound great, it works, and its cheaper than prisons.
The reason we have prisons is to make society safer right? Its to take the bad people and either reform them or remove them.