COMMENTARY – We don’t need to keep criminals in prison to punish them
America’s prison state is a disaster. One percent of the adult population is behind bars, and corrections is squeezing higher education out of state budgets. We have five times as many people in prison as we ever had before 1980, and five times as many (per capita) as any other advanced democracy.
What’s worse is that it is, in this era, a completely unnecessary disaster. It’s simply not true that to punish someone and control his behavior you need to lock him up and pay for his room and board.
While it lasts, prison is horrible for the prisoner and expensive for the state. And things often don’t get better when it ends: of the people released from prison today, about 60 percent will be back inside within three years.
The transition from prison to the “free world” can be very tough, both for the offender and for the neighborhood he returns to. In the month after getting out, a person released from prison has about a dozen times the mortality rate of people of the same age, race, and sex in the same neighborhood, with the leading causes of death among former inmates being drug overdose, cardiovascular disease, homicide, and suicide.
This shouldn’t be a surprise. Consider someone whose conduct earned him (much more rarely “her”) a prison cell. Typically, that person went into prison with poor impulse control, weak if any attachment to the legal labor market, few marketable skills, and subpar work habits. More often than not, he’s returning to a high-crime neighborhood. Many of his friends on the outside are also criminally active. Maybe, if he’s lucky and has been diligent, he’s learned something useful in prison. Perhaps he’s even picked up a GED. But he hasn’t learned much about how to manage himself in freedom because he hasn’t had any freedom in the recent past. And he hasn’t learned to provide for himself because he’s been fed, clothed, and housed at public expense.
Now let him out with $40 in his pocket, sketchy if any identification documents, and no enrollment for basic income support, housing, or health insurance. Even if he has family or friends who can tide him over during the immediate transition, his chances of finding legitimate work in a hurry aren’t very good. If he’s not working, he has lots of free time to get into trouble and no legal way of supporting himself.
Altogether, it’s a formula for failure — and failure is, too often, what it produces. But there is a better way. The current system never made sense, and it makes less sense every day. The cost of buildings and staff goes up every year; the cost of information collection goes down. We need to learn to substitute effective supervision for physical confinement. That’s the idea behind “graduated re-entry.”