This paper is written to simplify the current prison crisis which has been draining the state budget for the last ten years. It is not a politically correct nor a politically accepted concept as it offers alternatives to incarceration via traditional and evidence based programs but since the culture in Arizona is “tough on crime” the feasibility of making changes depends on the leadership of the state.
It is a common fact that prisons have grown exponentially in the United States and Arizona. There were major contributors to this growth including the war of drugs, veterans being discharged after serving in war, homeless populations roaming the streets, mentally ill persons incarcerated because of the lack of state hospitals or treatment facilities and many more. This has been accepted as fact and is not challenged.
What should be challenged is the fact that penal policies have shifted focusing on sentencing and doubling their sentence of confinement. As a natural consequence of such actions, the prison population exploded and has been growing ever since the implementation of such policies. The reality posing the state today is the fact this current policy is no longer affordable or sustainable with budgets facing decreased revenues and higher expenditures not just in prison costs but in education, healthcare, children protection needs, public safety etc.
Prosecutors are concerned about crime rates as this is a legitimate concern for public safety. The public is concerned about the cost of public safety and growing prison spending and this is also a legitimate concern today. A silent and hidden factor is the social and racial inequalities involved in the process of incarceration leaving families, children and communities damaged and dependent on public aid funding. However, we must focus on the social justice of incarceration and address the alternatives to reduce costs and populations.
The reality is that this paper only reflects the work that has already been done to reduce the incarceration rates. It merely mimics those recommendations and provides the reader with thought provoking ideas that break the bias of being “tough on crime” and offer a strategic viewpoint to reduce incarceration without impacting the crime rate and work on reducing imprisonment costs.
It is believed the point is not “something needs to be done” but rather we need to develop a strategy to seek reduction in prison costs through sound means and courses designed to reflect best practices. This paper is for the policymakers who appear to be restricted or hampered by political influences and a misunderstanding between incarceration rates and crime rates.
Thus they are taking the cautious approach about reducing incarceration for the fear of meddling or contributing to an increase in the crime rate. Making assumptions the connection between incarceration rates and the crime rates is flawed based on a constant factor that plays into these dynamics of what is called the “iron law of prison populations.” This principle applies two factors: the number of people put in prison and the length of time they stay incarcerated.
Obviously there is a link between the incarceration rate and the crime rate but it is misunderstood and has created a “fear” level of being too soft on crime. It has been determined you can reduce captivity rates or populations without a “substantial” negative impact on public safety. Thus this paper proposes a set of penal changes that would cut the population and costs respectively. If used accordingly and abiding by the previous sets of rules before the prison population boom, we could return the prison management element to a restored status and focus on alternatives to prison time given by judges and recommended by county prosecutors.
FACT: It takes a crime to convict someone to serve time in prison. If crime rates rise so does the imprisonment rate. We expect the crime rate to fall but we see it occurs on a very small scale thus we have a mild correlation that can be addressed and politically tolerated if the mindset changes to accepting alternatives to longer sentencing.Therefore a consensus is built that the impact is modest compared to other factors on crime.
FACT: When one person is locked up another person comes along and replaces him or her maintaining the crime rate. This is especially true for drug related crimes. This represents the fact that a prison conviction will increase the prison population but it does not decrease the crime rate. Another fact gathered over the years is that the length of time does not change the risk of recidivism thus sending to people for shorter periods would not impact their propensity to commit crimes upon release from prison. The exception to this rule would be in prisons were to release a disproportional number of persons from prison as it would have an impact on crime rates.
FACT: People released from prison are still high risk of committing new crimes however, they commit only a small fraction of all crimes reported. Taken into consideration prisoners are not less likely to commit crimes upon release after serving more time in prison and given the fact the contribution is small the risk is relatively small. Hence increasing the prison release rate would serve no advantage to this process since it has already been determined some prisoners will commit crimes upon release. However we can assume these prisoners would commit a crime anyway.
FACT: When the number of persons going to prison drops, the number of inmates released from prison will also drop. Hence the corresponding “new” crime committed rate would drop as well. Based on the research that the length of stay in prison has no relationship to rate of recidivism and going to prison in the first place it does not reduce the likelihood that the criminal offender will be a repeat offender and make it marginally higher.
FACT: This analysis shows that the size of the prison population and the amount of crimes committed are related but not as strong as assumed. Since the duration of time prisoners are released from prison is not related to their likelihood to remain crime free it suggests prisoners can serve shorter sentences without triggering an increase in the crime rate.
FACT: Policymakers misunderstand how prisons grow and confuse rehabilitation with punishment. The same goes for judges who think they are sending people for rehabilitation. Remember the “iron law” which states two factors: how many people go to prison and how long they stay. If either of these factors changes, the size of the prison population will also change. The corollary to this iron law is equally important: There is no way to change the prison population without changing either the number of people who go to prison or how long they stay there.
FACT: There were three deciding factors in prison growth – sentencing policies restricted the use of probation as a sentence for felons causing an increase in the number of people going to prison; enhanced penalties for felonies committed increased the length of time to serve; a backlog of people serving time (overcrowding) serving longer sentences. The result is today’s dilemma to reduce prison growth and costs.
Despite efforts to address alternative sentencing laws, the idea of sentencing reforms did not impact the length of sentence but rather focused on the probation periods and conditions. These reforms were basically sabotaged by technical violations that resulted in persons going to prison anyway. These revocations impacted the population and created a failed system to reform the problem. Hence the intention to provide non-incarceration alternatives turned into incarceration due to a lack of incentives on the community corrections side of the justice system.
Thus the laws changed for an alternative to serve but due to revocations it was not effective and there was not a single new law designed to address the change of length of time or reduce restrictions on probation sentences. Far more important are the emphases on reentry, alternatives to incarceration, and the philosophy of rehabilitation, a problem that can be addressed only with a focus on the iron law's two elements.
Political obstacles are in place to resist rehabilitation programs in Arizona. Because there are misunderstandings between punishment and treatment, the debate has caused a standstill in the process to address this issue. The focus on either penal strategy is understood but one serves an entire different purpose than the other.
FACT: Some judges will say that they send people to prison for rehabilitation purposes. This is not the accurate purpose of such sentencing. They are being sent to prison for punishment since treatment programs are severely limited inside prisons. Best case scenario are alcohol abuse, substance abuse and anger management programs available at a limited scale to the population and only as mandatory conditions of incarceration but this is not rehabilitate in nature since the prison environment is more dominantly counter-treatment than successful treatment outside of prisons.
FACT: To achieve a true rehabilitation prison program for treatment the system would have to be increased to scale of the population for everyone to attend. This is unrealistic and very costly done. In the end, rehabilitation is the right thing to do but it does not impact mass incarceration.
To reduce mass incarceration we must entice the criminal justice system e.g. prosecutors, judges to place offenders into community programs rather than incarceration including the intensive probation programs for drug treatment diversion programs. The same can be said for the mentally ill and other special needs however, in todays’ political world, these programs rarely replace incarceration thus doing nothing to drive down mass incarceration rates.
There are two main reasons for this. First it is not politically feasible to offer alternatives in Arizona as the politicians run on and are elected by the people for being “tough on criminals.” this results in having higher rates of incarceration and more “technical” revocation failure rates. Second, this strategy promises not to impact public safety or risk thus the system forgoes dealing with the serious violators and deal with those lawbreakers who would not have gone to prison anyways thus doing nothing for the incarnation rates.
In order to reduce incarceration and prison costs we should look at evidence based:
The number of persons going into prison (including violators)
Technical violations of probation and parole
Length of incarceration
Impact of mass incarceration rates
Impact of the crime rates
Harvard Law & Policy Review Summer, 2009 -Confronting the Costs on Incarceration Todd R. Clear James Austin Copyright © 2009 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College; Todd R. Clear, James Austin