The principles driving our criminal justice system haven’t changed much in centuries. In the past, just about any crime under the sun was a capital offense. Commit a crime and forfeit your life. In the colonial Virginia of 1612, one could expect to be hanged for even minor offenses such as killing chickens or stealing grapes. The U.S. hasn’t quite outgrown this mentality. The only difference is instead of killing the offender, we send them to one of hundreds of modern-day dungeons.
And these dungeons are worthless.
The U.S. has the second highest incarceration rate in the world, and studies show our prisons do not reduce crime rates or recidivism rates. In fact, according to the National Institute of Justice, more than two-thirds of released prisoners are rearrested within three years, and more than half return to prison. This revolving door of incarceration is not only costly but devastating to families and communities.
The criminal justice system fails to address the root causes of crime. Many incarcerated individuals come from low-income communities and lack access to education, job training, and mental health services. Instead of addressing these underlying issues, courts resort to a punishment-based system that’s one of the most expensive in the world. A 2015 study strongly suggested increases in mass incarceration across a 5 year period "accounted for nearly zero percent of the overall reduction in crime.” A 2017 Prison Policy Initiative report demonstrated while public corrections agencies on average reported a total budget of $80.7 billion for the year 2017, the more honest total cost of incarceration in the country was closer to $182 billion a year. Additionally, it argued investing only a fraction of that amount in programs that address the root causes of crime was not only superior in terms of overhead and economics, but showed a return on investment in terms of rehabilitating people and benefiting communities.
To ensure successful reentry for released prisoners, we need to focus on creating meaningful structures that enable people to transition back into society. This means providing access to education and job training, as well as counseling services and substance abuse treatment. It also means addressing the housing and employment barriers that returning citizens often face.
There are many data-driven programs that function well as prison alternatives. Find some examples below.
These are specialized courts that focus on cases involving substance abuse. Participants are required to attend treatment, submit to drug testing, and meet regularly with a judge. The goal is to help participants work through their addiction and address the root causes of their criminal behavior. Drug courts have been shown to reduce recidivism rates by providing a structured, supportive environment that addresses the underlying issues that led to drug use and criminal behavior. According to a review by Stanford's Addiction Policy Center, drug courts have been shown to potentially reduce recidivism rates, on average, by 38%-50% among adult drug court participants.
Mental Health Courts
These are specialized courts that focus on cases involving individuals with mental health issues. Participants receive mental health treatment, counseling, and other support services to help them address root causes of their criminal behavior. Mental health courts have been shown to be effective in reducing recidivism rates by providing participants with the support they need to manage their mental health issues and avoid future criminal behavior. Some reports, such as one by a federal judge, indicate "offenders who are arrested and complete the mental health court program have a much lower recidivism rate than their peers,” comparing 20% to 72%.
This alternative involves requiring persons convicted of a crime to perform unpaid work in their community as a way of making amends. Community service has been shown to be effective in reducing recidivism rates by helping those who have been convicted feel more connected to their communities, providing them with a sense of purpose. One scholarly paper concluded "recidivism rates in individuals receiving community sentences are typically lower in comparison to those reported in released prisoners," while another such article found "one year after community service, recidivism for property crimes is 67.7% less than that after imprisonment. For violent crimes, recidivism is reduced by 60%."
This alternative involves using technology such as GPS tracking to monitor offenders' whereabouts and ensure compliance with the conditions of their sentence. Electronic monitoring has been shown to be effective in reducing recidivism rates by providing a deterrent to criminal behavior and giving offenders a greater sense of accountability for their actions. In a 2022 report, EM was found to "reduce the probability of reoffending by 22 percentage points five years after sentencing and by 11 percentage points ten years after sentencing, with the cumulative number of offenses reduced by 40% ten years after sentencing."
Restorative Justice Programs
These programs involve bringing those who have caused harm and their victims together to have a dialogue about the harm that was caused and how to make things right. Restorative justice programs have been shown to be effective in reducing recidivism rates by providing those who have been convicted with a greater sense of empathy and understanding for their actions and helping them develop a greater sense of responsibility for their behavior. At least two restorative justice dialogue programs were shown to "contribute to a 26 percent reduction in recidivism."
Youth Diversion Programs
These programs are designed to divert young people away from the criminal justice system and into alternative programs that address the root causes of their behavior. Youth diversion programs have been shown to be effective in reducing recidivism rates by providing young people with the support they need to address the underlying issues that led to their criminal behavior and avoid future involvement with the criminal justice system. A 2022 Vera Institute of Justice report claimed "youth diversion programs are on average 10 percent more effective in reducing future contact with the criminal legal system compared to conventional prosecution. In one study, young people going through standard prosecution were more than twice as likely to be rearrested than people who were diverted."
Rehabilitative programs are effective because they address the underlying issues that lead to crime. If we invest in people over prisons, and restoration over incarceration. But we need the prosecutors on board, or this ship won't sail far.