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Prison and the Alternatives: Is Incarceration the Answer to Crime?

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How well do our prisons reform prisoners? What are the alternatives to prison? What is the best, most cost-effective way of protecting the public? These are some of the questions raised by individuals who are legitimately concerned not only with where their tax dollars are going, but also with what is being done to break the cycle of crime within their representative communities. When prisons were first introduced to our society in 1790, the idea of rehabilitation as an alternative to corporal or spiritual punishment was adopted and the belief that if inmates were forced to examine their conduct in confinement, repentance and religious conversion could occur. David Cayley, a reporter for the CBS show Ideas, summarizes the reasons we jail people today:

In theory, we send people to prison for two reasons: first, to teach them to behave peaceably in society; secondly, to keep criminals out of sight and mind. The justice system has moved closer to the second purpose. A difficulty with sending most of those that commit offenses to prison is that it intensifies problems over the long-term because prison “dehabilitates” inmates (qtd. in Lawrence 8).

As a society, we expect these bleak, brutal facilities to correct our criminals. In fact, prisons are more likely of doing the opposite. In the words of the United Kingdom’s Home Secretary, Douglas Hurd, “Prisons are an expensive way of making bad people worse” (qtd. in Anderson 5). Late 1997 statistics show rates of recidivism of 60% or more for released prisoners (Lawrence10). This statistic clearly proves that incarcerating offenders is an ineffective method of solving today’s crime problems. David Cayley comments, “Rates of recidivism everywhere testify to the fact that those who go to prison will often go more than once” (qtd. in Lawrence 10).

From 1850 to 1973, the incarceration rate in the United States remained stable at approximately 100 inmates per 100,000 population. Since 1973, the United States’ incarceration rate has skyrocketed to 645 inmates per 100,000 population, representing the second highest incarceration rate of any¬†industrialized nation, falling just behind Russia (Lawrence 4). According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, since 1992, prison population in the United States has grown at an average annual rate of 9 percent. By mid-year 1997, the United States prison and jail population reached 1,725,842 people, more than triple the number of inmates housed in 1980. At the current pace of incarceration, the national inmate population will surpass the two million mark by the year 2000 (Corrections Compendium 22).

For the last few years, research conducted by the Department of Justice and the United States Sentencing Commission has shown that over 20% of the inmates in federal prison are low-level offenders who pose no threat to society. Incarcerating these low-level offenders is extremely costly, and it wastes prison space. An individual incarcerated in a federal prison today costs the taxpayer $24,783 per year (Corrections Compendium 23). These offenders could undergo corrections and punishment under an alternative program in place of incarceration.

The current rate of incarceration in the United States is out of control. As a nation, we must replace incarceration with alternative methods. In our current state of government downsizing, it is of the utmost importance for policy makers to develop a criminal justice plan that is both successful and cost effective while continuing to remain vigilant against crime. Research and reform, if actively implemented, will modify our defective justice system. Put simply by Judge Heino Lilles, “The justice system isn’t a system at all” (qtd. in Lawrence 5).

One proven alternative to imprisonment is the federal probation and pretrial services system.

This system uses local punishment and community corrections to provide a successful and cost effective alternative to incarceration. There are two primary missions of the federal probation and pretrial services system. The first mission is to assist in the fair administration of justice, while the second mission focuses on protecting the public. According to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, “… between 1986 and 1994, the¬†federal probation and pretrial services system enjoyed a phenomenal success rate with parolees. The system maintained, on average, a success rate of 77 percent- -that is, 77 percent of all offenders successfully completed their term of supervision” (qtd. in Infonautics 2). On March 10, 1996, a memorandum issued from the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts reported that “… supervision costs for an offender under federal probation and pretrial services system is $2,344 per year, [approximately one-tenth the cost of incarcerating the offender]” (qtd. in Infonautics 2). When one compares the cost of local punishment versus prison, along with the rates of recidivism between prisons and the federal probation and pretrial services system, one will know that incarceration is not the answer to crime.

The Lancaster County Intermediate Punishment Program is another example of an effective program providing an alternative to incarceration for non-violent offenders. In a nutshell, underneath this program an officer of the Court releases the defendant into the community with strict supervision; but, if the defendant fails to comply with the conditions of the program, he or she will return to Lancaster County Prison. Defendant’s with no present or past history of violent behavior who are sentenced to Lancaster County Prison for a period of less than two years are eligible for the Intermediate Punishment Program. Defendants convicted of murder, rape, robbery, kidnapping, and drug trafficking are excluded from participating in the program (Anderson 27).

Four components aid in the success of the Intermediate Punishment Program in Lancaster County. The Adult Probation Department, Impaired Driver Program, Special Offender Services, and the Bail Administration Agency operate these components. The program options that make up the Intermediate Punishment Program in Lancaster County consist of: House Arrest with electronic monitoring, Intensive Supervision, Special Offender Services, and Alternatives to Pretrial Detention. House Arrest with electronic monitoring imposes confinement in the offender’s home as opposed to the County Prison. An electronic ankle bracelet provides surveillance of the defendant’s location, monitoring and restricting the offender’s activities. When a defendant is on house arrest he or she must also meet specific requirements. These requirements consist of routine office visits, employment or job¬†training, drug and alcohol abuse treatment, urinalysis and breathalyzer testing, and community service participation, which is scheduled by the parole officer.

In addition to these requirements, payment of fines and restitution are also a condition of supervision. Intensive Supervision is a less restrictive form of the Lancaster Intermediate Punishment Program. This particular method establishes a curfew instead of using electronic monitoring. During this phase of the program, the offender is required to participate in all of the elements of the house arrest program, but with a gradual lessening of restrictions. The third program option, Special Offender Services, is designed for offenders with mental illness.

Underneath this program, the parole officer works closely with the Lancaster County Mental Health Agency to develop a treatment plan promoting therapeutic consistency and providing intensive supervision, which is not possible in prison or in traditional parole supervision. Alternatives to Pretrial Detention make up the fourth component, or program option, of the Intermediate Punishment Program in Lancaster County. Pretrial release and enforcement of bail conditions are alternatives to incarceration which provide intensive and specialized supervision for the pretrial detainee. Using the concepts of Intensive Supervision and House Arrest with electronic monitoring, the pretrial service specialists supervise the pretrial prison population through caseload management and client tracking systems (Anderson 30).

According to Austin Lawrence, author of Prison and its Alternatives, “The philosophy of using incarceration only for society’s most dangerous offenders [as Lancaster County has done] maximizes the potential for low-level, non-violent offenders participating in an alternative punishment program to become productive, contributing members of their community” (19). The County of Lancaster incorporated community service into their program because they believed rehabilitation is easier to achieve in the community than in prison. Lancaster County also understood that by re-accepting offenders back into the community they would not only provide offenders the opportunity to gain the self-esteem and skills necessary to change their criminal lifestyle, but also would benefit by not having to pay taxes for certain services normally performed by the city. The beliefs of Lancaster¬†County coincide with what David Cayley thinks:

If an offender is sentenced to do community service, they become genuinely responsible for their actions, to themselves, and to the community. Being re-accepted gives them self-esteem and the skills they need to do something about their criminal lifestyle (qtd. in Lawrence 17).

While many justice reform advocates believe that alternative methods to imprisonment will effectively eliminate criminal behaviors, some individuals oppose to implementing alternatives to prison and believe that these new programs will only augment the current system. The fear that the justice system will merely control new classes of people without solving the problems with imprisonment is common among the opposition. Justice reformers will say this is not the case. Evidence shows that in Ontario, Canada between the 1950’s and the 1980’s using alternative programs to imprisonment for non-violent criminals actually led to reductions in the rate of prison admissions of up to 30% (Corrections Compendium 25).

According to David G. Morris, journalist for the St. Louis Post Dispatch, the Illinois Department of Corrections education and rehabilitation programs cannot succeed because of disruptive, coercive and dangerous inmate leaders who control the rest of the inmate population. Morris claims that the state of Illinois has implemented education and treatment programs, but are unsuccessful in reducing recidivism rates and expenses. The programs that Illinois correctional facilities implemented included: psychiatric treatment, diagnostic studies of inmates, classification procedures, vocational training, recreational activities, drug counseling, and sex offender therapy. David Morris states that ” It may be na√Įve to believe that such schooling and programs can genuinely change the lifestyles of the criminals who repeatedly wind up in our prisons…these efforts tried diligently since the 1930’s and produced dismal results” (St. Louis Post Dispatch).

Prison reformers might argue that the reason the state of Illinois has not reduced their recidivism rates, and has increased costs is that they
implemented the wrong programs. If Illinois modeled Lancaster County’s Intermediate Punishment Program, or the Federal Probation and Pretrial Services System, chances are good that their recidivism rates would have decreased along with their expenses.

The United States as a nation needs to stop treating criminal policy as a commodity. As David Cayley points out, “Although there is a very close to a non-existing relationship between the rate of imprisonment and registered crime, politicians often talk about building more prisons. Recently, social relationships have caused politicians to present increased incarceration as the solution to many social ills. The idea of tough justice has become an intellectual commodity itself; the universal test of political mettle in the United States is the ability to be tough on crime” (qtd. in Lawrence 15).

Based upon recent research, it is evident that a significant number of inmates, now incarcerated in the United States, are low risk inmates who could safely participate in alternative programs within their respective communities. This solution will not increase the risk to public safety and will ensure cost effectiveness nationwide, if implemented. It is my opinion that prisons must still be maintained as the absolute signifier of social displeasure, but only used in the case of a physically dangerous criminal. Although I encourage the use of local punishment and community supervision rather than prison commitments, I am not at all opposed to sending individuals to prison. Prisons are valuable, expensive, limited resources that must be used wisely for violent criminals and chronic offenders.

The philosophy of using prison for only the most serious offenders, as Lancaster County has done, maximizes the potential for individuals under alternative punishment programs to become productive, contributing members of the community, and it minimizes expenses for the taxpayers. In closing, intermediate punishment programs and probation and pretrial services are two cost effective alternatives to incarceration, which best protect our communities by reducing recidivism rates by helping ex-offenders become contributing members of society while saving millions of taxpayer dollars. The solution to the paradox of how to remain tough on crime in a fiscally responsible manner is directly in front of us. The Federal Probation and Pretrial Services System and the Lancaster Intermediate Punishment Program are two proven systems, which offer solutions and alternatives to prison.

Works Cited

Anderson, David. Sensible Justice; Alternatives To Prison. New York: Random, 1997.

“Between Prison and Probation.” Corrections Compendium. October, 1996: pp 22-23.

Infonautics Corporation. Federal probation and pretrial services-a cost effective and successful community connect. Baltimore: Infonautics Corporation, 1998.

Lawrence, Austin. Prison and its Alternatives. Strategic Planning and Special Projects Office. 6 Aug. 1997.

(6 March 1999).

Mauer, M. Americans behind bars.Washington, DC:1996.

Morris, David G. “Separate Prisoners So Others Have A Chance.” St. Louis Post Dispatch 7 February 1999: A1+.

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