America’s prison state is a disaster. One percent of the adult population is behind bars. We have five times as many prisoners as any other advanced democracy. And corrections is squeezing higher education out of state budgets.
This disaster is completely unnecessary. Our prison system is built on the false notion that the only way to punish someone and control his behavior is by locking him up.
While it lasts, prison is horrible for the prisoner and expensive for the state. It often does not get better when it ends: Of the people released from prison today, about 60 percent will be back behind bars 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 comparable people in the same neighborhood, with the leading causes of death among former inmates being drug overdose, heart attacks, murder, and suicide.
This should not come as a surprise. Consider someone whose conduct earned him a prison cell. Typically that person came into prison with poor impulse control, weak if any attachment to legal employment, and few marketable skills. More often than not, he is returning to a high crime neighborhood. Many of his friends on the outside are themselves criminals. If he is lucky and has been diligent, he has picked up a GED while in prison. But he has not learned anything about how to manage himself in freedom, because he has not had any recent freedom. And he has not learned to provide for himself, because he has been fed, clothed, and housed at public expense.
Now let him out with $40 in his pocket, sketchy if any identification documents, and not enrolled for basic income support, housing, or health insurance. Even if he has family or friends who can tide him over the immediate transition, his chances of finding legitimate work in a hurry are slim. If he is not working, he has much free time to get into trouble, and no legal way of supporting himself.
This formula for failure leaves us stuck with mass incarceration. Luckily, there is a better way. We need to swap prison for effective supervision. Prisoners should be released after serving some portion of their time behind bars. They should then spend the rest of their sentence outside bars, gradually earning their way toward freedom: a process of “graduated reentry.” It can help keep down crime, our prison population, fiscal costs, and recidivism.
To get back to our historical level of incarceration, we would need to reduce the prisoner headcount by 80 percent. How can we do that while also protecting public safety? By turning ex-criminals into productive, free citizens.
For the transition from prison to life outside to be successful, it needs to be more gradual. If someone needed to be locked up yesterday, he should not be completely at liberty today. And he should not be asked to go from utter dependency to total self-sufficiency in one flying leap. He needs both more control and more support. Neither alone is likely to do the job.
Of course both control and support cost money. But prison costs even more. The trick is to start the reentry process before the prisoner’s release date, so the money you spend in the community is balanced by the money you’re not spending on a cell.
Start with housing. Spend some of the money that would otherwise have financed a prison cell to rent a small, sparsely-furnished efficiency apartment. In some ways, that apartment is still a cell, and the offender is still a prisoner. He cannot leave it or have visitors except as specifically permitted. The unit has cameras inside and is subject to search. But he does not need guards, and does not have to worry about prison gangs or assault.
Drug testing and sanctions can avoid relapse to problem drug use. GPS monitoring can show where he is all the time, including whether he is at work or at home when he is supposed to be there. This makes curfews enforceable and keeps him away from personal “no-go” zones (i.e. the street corner where he used to deal). GPS would also place him at the scene of any new crime that he might commit, thus drastically reducing his chances of getting away with it and therefore his willingness to take the gamble in the fi place. The apartment functions as a prison without bars.
In some ways, it is a fairly grim existence, especially at the beginning: The offender starts off on a strict curfew, allowed out only for work, for job-hunting, for necessary personal business (food shopping, medical care, service appointments) and to meet the correctional officer in charge of his supervision. And he is required to work full-time at a public-service job. On top of that he has to spend time looking for an ordinary job. He never touches money except for small change; he makes purchases as needed with an EBT or debit card, and only for approved items. The “no- cash” rule makes it harder to buy drugs or a gun and reduces the benefits of criminal activity.
Minor violations — staying out beyond curfew, using alcohol or other drugs, missing or misbehaving at work, missing appointments — can be sanctioned by temporary tightening of restrictions, or even a couple of days back behind bars. Major violations — serious new offenses attempts to avoid supervision — lead to immediate termination from the program and return to prison. Not, on the whole, an easy life. But it is much simpler than the challenge of a sudden transition from prison to the street.
If you were to ask a prisoner who has now served two years of a five-year sentence (for drug dealing, say, or burglary), “Would you like to get out of prison right now and into the situation I just described?” the odds of his saying “Yes” would be excellent. (Entry into the program could actually be offered as a reward for good behavior in prison.)
The offender’s freedom increases over time, as long as he does what he is supposed to do. While violations of the rules are sanctioned, compliance and achievement are rewarded with increased freedom. Every sustained period of compliance with the rules leads to some relaxation of them. Successful completion of the first 48 hours out of prison might earn a few hours’ freedom to leave the unit other than for work or other necessary business. Further relaxation might change the rule from “out only as allowed” to a curfew (“not out after 6 p.m.”). All of those transitions would be by formula, so that the subject knows the exact timing of his next milestone and exactly how much freedom he will obtain if he hits it. That tight coupling between behavior and results is the best way to gradually build the habits that will allow the ex-offender to stay out of trouble.
Eventually the transition from a prisoner in a cell to a person with a job and an apartment is complete. At that point, the ex-offender could be released from his legal role as a “prisoner” and put on parole or other post-release supervision, or even given unconditional liberty.
The ex-prisoner’s biggest goal would be finding and holding a job. From the program’s viewpoint, an employed person should be virtually cost-neutral other than monitoring costs; in most housing markets, even a minimum-wage job can pay the rent on an efficiency apartment plus groceries. That means that every re-entrant who finds a job would allow for the release of another prisoner. Thus, such a program could grow to a scale big enough to noticeably change the incarceration rate.
Once a former prisoner has become self-supporting, and developed the habits necessary to hold a job, his risk of recidivism plunges. For a re-entrant who gets and holds a real job, life would become much less prison-like. The price of sustained liberty is sustained employment.
Given the lamentable record of offenders employment programs, finding and holding a job might seem out of reach for most offenders. But the success of some job-oriented, incentive-based programs — federal probation in St. Louis, the Montgomery County Pre-Release Center in Rockville, Md., and the Alternatives to Incarceration program in Georgia — seems to indicate that if supervision can make offenders genuinely interested, many of them are capable of getting and holding jobs.
There is good reason to think that the success rate would be higher for graduated release than for the current approach, and that the costs of the program could be more than recouped from the savings in reduced incarceration. But budget savings are not the main goal: The greatest benefits would flow to the offenders, to their families, to their neighborhoods, and to those who otherwise would have been the victims of their future crimes.
Getting back to a civilized level of incarceration while continuing to push crime rates down is out of reach using current policy tools. We need big new ideas that can be tested, and scaled up if they work. Graduated reentry is one such idea. We should test it with a few dozen prisoners at one or two sites, work out the kinks, evaluate it, and — if it works — expand it and try it elsewhere. If it fails, go back to the drawing board. But sticking with the existing system, and accepting its disastrous results, is not a reasonable choice.
Click here to read the entire book, Solutions: American Leaders Speak Out On Criminal Justice.
*This piece is co-authored with Angela Hawken and Ross Halperin. A longer version of this essay was published on March 18, 2015 on Vox.com, and can be found there. It is drawn upon here with the permission of the authors, Vox Media, Inc., and Vox.com