Reducing Prison Overcrowding, Improving Justice and Preventing Crime

Prison is necessary. But there are many forms of punishment -- prison isn't our only option. Just as there are many forms of medicine to address illness, there also should be many forms of intervention to address the many forms criminal behavior.
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Prison overcrowding and excessive prison costs are a problem in virtually every state in this nation. The question is: Is it worth it? Do we need to spend $65 billion a year on prison or are there better ways to deal with criminal offenders?

There are two things that contribute to prison and jail overcrowding: 1) admissions (i.e. technical parole violations, new court commitments, devil commitments), and 2) length of stay (i.e. mandatory minimums, or new laws the increase sentence length for a crime).

Alternatives to incarceration may be used as a means of reducing a correctional facility population by either sentencing inmates to the alternative in place of prison or jail (an admissions issue), or by releasing inmates to an alternative sanction in place of remaining in prison or jail (a length of stay issue).

By decreasing the number of inmates who are sent to prison or jail, or by decreasing the amount of time offenders spend in prison or jail, and placing these offenders in alternative sanctions that have been evaluated to produce favorable outcomes in terms of reduced recidivism and decreased costs, jurisdictions can improve public safety and decrease costs.

One extreme view is that in a modern progressive society, we should not have prisons. I disagree. The first and most obvious point about prison is that we need prisons; there are some very nasty people for whom treatment is not going to work and freedom in society will result in havoc for free citizens.

Another extreme perspective is that the tougher we get with our criminal justice sanctions, the lower crime will be. I disagree with this view, too. Career criminals don't think like law abiding citizens. For many, going to prison comes with the business of crime. For others, prison is a right of passage. For any criminal, it doesn't matter how tough the sanction is if one doesn't think one is going to get caught. Certainty of punishment is more important than severity or even the celerity of punishment.

Conventional wisdom says that if we lock up criminals they won't be committing crime and therefore society will be safer. This is very simplistic.

First, there is no consistent relationship between mass incarceration and decreased crime rates. Proponents of mass incarceration tend to look at the increase in mass incarceration and the decrease in crime throughout the 1990s. This is a classic case of cherry-picking data. If we go back to the 1970s when mass incarceration began, we find that we can't have it all ways and still have a coherent explanation: 1) Incarceration rates and crime rates bounced up and down a small amount but were fairly level from the 1930s to the 1960s; 2) Incarceration rates and crime rates increased together in the late 1970s-1980s; 3) Incarceration rates continued to go up as crime rates went down in the 1990s; and 4) Incarceration rates continued to go up as crime rates leveled in the 2000s.

So how do we deal with the hundreds of thousands of offenders who are unlikely to reoffend but are collectively costing states billions of dollars each year?

There are a number of alternative sanctions for low level or first time offenders. These are cost effective and all have been shown to be associated with lower recidivism rates than similar offenders who go through the prison system. This might be because prison is often criminogenic, meaning that it can actually make an offender more likely to engage in criminal behavior upon release. Or it could be because alternative sanctions more appropriately address the criminal underpinnings and underlying criminal behavior, essentially nipping the behavior or thought process before it becomes chronic.

A brief list of alternative sanctions includes: Electronic Monitoring; Drug Courts; Mental Health Courts; Domestic Violence Courts; Day Reporting Centers; Restorative Justice; Community Service; Fines; Probation; and Parole. There is ample research supporting each one of these sanctions. But not all are appropriate for every offender, and for some offenders, prison is the only realistic sanction.

I am not advocating that states just implement these alternative sanctions just because they exist. We have to make sure the right questions are asked and answered. The following questions should also be asked before the implementation of an intermediate punishment or alternative:

•Based on the population we have, are our inmates appropriate for an intermediate punishment or alternative?
•Do we have the right staff or training to implement this intermediate punishment?
•What are our ethical obligations, and does the potential sanction pose a conflict?

We must also address if the alternative can be afforded, if it will receive support and acceptance among other criminal justice partners and the public, and if it is sustainable?

Due to the fact that intermediate punishments have been successful in reducing criminal behavior and costs, other jurisdictions, fear of political repercussion, if any, must be overcome so that a more effective and cost efficient criminal justice may be realized.

Prison is necessary. But there are many forms of punishment -- prison isn't our only option. Just as there are many forms of medicine to address illness, there also should be many forms of intervention to address the many forms criminal behavior.

Paul Heroux worked in a state prison and a county jail. He holds a Master's in Criminology from the University of Pennsylvania and a Master's in Public Administration from Harvard. He can be reached at

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