The U.S. has a problem.
Um, everyone is in jail.
Oops, we imprisoned everyone.
How did this happen? What caused it?
Well, let’s look at the historical data.
More people have been incarcerated since 1980 than ever before in U.S. history, and if this policy worked, you would think we would have a lower homicide rate that correlates.
But it doesn’t correlate.
Here is an overlay of the two for better comparison.
Despite the dramatic rise of incarceration rates since 1980, it was a whole decade later, not until 1990, that it took for homicide rates to go down.
I chose homicide rates instead of say, violent crime rates because it is a better indicator of crime than property theft or all criminal activity combined. People tend to report murder and there is better documentation of that particular crime than something like domestic violence or rape.
Who is in prison?
- Black men make up only 13% of the US population, but constitute 40% of prisoners. (Source, Source)
- In contrast, white men make up 64% of the US population, but make up 39% of the incarcerated population. (Source, Source)
- Men make up 50% of the population and yet, they are 82% of prisoners. (Source)
- 64% of jail inmates have a mental health problem (Source)
What crimes are being committed?
Overwhelmingly, violent crime is the #1 reason for imprisonment.
What can be done to reform prisons?
- Rehabilitate the prisoner
- Make sliding scale bail
1. Rehabilitate the prisoner
In a 20 year study on prisoner rehabilitation, evidence was shown that a program of “cognitive behavioral therapy,” reduced recidivism rates in prisoners. The findings are as follows:
- Without treatment, 82% returned to prison
- With treatment, 61% returned to prison
With treatment we see a drop of 21% in recidivism rates. (Source)
What is cognitive behavioral therapy?
Briefly, CBT is changing your unhelpful or dysfunctional thought patterns in order to reduce negative or unwanted actions or emotions. Healthy thought patterns are taught to the client, as well as effective emotional regulation skills. The idea is that when thoughts are changed, behaviors and emotions follow.
Rob has a problem with how to effectively manage his anger. His girlfriend made a comment he perceived as offensive, so he punched a hole in the wall of their home. Rob feels terrible about scaring his wife and damaging the house.
Rob sees his therapist who suggests they do a “behavioral experiment.” Next Rob gets angry, the therapist suggests he physically leave the room, and try to distract himself from thinking about what he is so angry about, until he feels calmer. Then, at his next session, he compares how the experiment went.
Next session, Rob comes in and he explains that he carried out the behavioral experiment when his wife upset him again. He explains that when he got angry, he left the room and played solitaire on the computer until he calmed down. Then he returned to his wife, and while he did raise his voice, he did not resort to violence this time.
The therapist asks him how the experimental behavior went compared to his status quo reaction to anger. He admits that it went much better in the experimental condition because he didn’t feel regret that he had gotten violent or scared his wife. The therapist asks if he would give the technique a try again next time. He agrees that he would be open to trying the experiment again in the future.
This is a very simplified example, but it provides an idea of what cognitive behavioral therapy might look like in a particular instance.
Rehabilitation is not without controversy though. Many people find it morally wrong to offer easy access to mental health care for prisoners, when non-prisoners don’t get the same benefit.
I have a few things to say about that.
For one, I think everyone should have easier access to mental healthcare, prisoner or not. That is a failing of government as well as our culture as whole. $23,000 is spent per prisoner on incarceration facilities, per year. Over the past 20 years, this spending has increased and outpaced spending on essential government services such as education and public assistance. (Source) It begs the question, if we spent the money being funneled into prisons on non-prisoner social services, would we see a decrease in crime rates?
We don’t have an answer to that because it hasn’t been done, but isn’t it worth trying something other than continuing the status quo?
2. Make sliding scale bail
Bail as it is currently being utilized discriminates against the impoverished.
James allegedly possessed cocaine and is in jail awaiting trial. His bail is set at $25,000. Luckily, James has his own paper business and has enough money to pay some of the bail, which makes him less of a credit risk to the bail bondsman that gets him out. He can also pay back the bond because he has a high enough income.
Chris is not so fortunate. He also allegedly possessed cocaine and is in jail awaiting trial. His bail is also set at $25,000. The problem is though, Chris works as a temporary laborer and only has $500 to his name. The bail bondsman is less likely to give him the full bond considering his employment is spotty, he doesn’t have very much up front cash, and he is a high credit risk. He’s also unsure if he will ever be able to pay back the $25,000 to the bondsman anyway. Chris has little choice and stays in jail until his trial begins.
People like Chris make up an overwhemingly large percentage of those imprisoned. In New York city alone, 31% of non-felony defendants stay in jail because they cannot post the $500 bail. (Source)
After getting out of jail, people like Chris are less likely to be able to find a job or keep the one they had. Employers don’t tend to want to hire people who have a criminal record. It also difficult to find housing because of the same reason. This increases the likelihood that the ex-prisoner, guilty or not, is going to end up homeless.
Another thought I couldn’t find much research on was, does going to prison make an otherwise functional citizen more likely to commit crime?
My intuition tells me that it does. Prisons are more likely to breed violence or abuse and I have a hard time believing a person is not negatively impacted by that. I imagine going to prison is a trauma and like most people who experience trauma, there are repercussions. I think people coming out of any abusive environment are at higher risk of becoming abusive themselves.
If people like Chris were given a reduced bail, according to their income level, he would be less likely to be at risk for committing criminal acts because he would spend less time in the highly mentally disruptive prison environment.
Bail was originally supposed to exist to reduce the likelihood that someone was a flight risk by exchanging their money for their freedom before their trial. Presently, it allows people with money who are dangerous to be set free and those with less money who are not dangerous to be imprisoned, as well as, potentially creating more prisoners out of those who are jailed and poor, but innocent of their crime.