Prison reform: Apparently it’s a bad idea to put everyone in jail?

The U.S. has a problem.

Um, everyone is in jail.

WorldIncarceration

Oops, we imprisoned everyone.

How did this happen? What caused it?

Well, let’s look at the historical data.

ImprisonmentRate

(Source)

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.

HomicideRate

(Source)

But it doesn’t correlate.

Here is an overlay of the two for better comparison.

PrisonOverlay

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?

incarcerationdemographics

 

  • 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. (SourceSource)
  • 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?

crimebyoffense

Overwhelmingly, violent crime is the #1 reason for imprisonment.

What can be done to reform prisons?

  1. Rehabilitate the prisoner
  2. 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.

For example:

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.

For example:

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.

What causes birth rates to go down in developing countries?

Nobody knows every detail, and the research out there is limited on what has caused fertility rates to go down in developing countries. There are some educated guesses though.

1. As incomes have risen over time, birth rates have been declining. Child labor has gone down as well.

GDPDeveloping

Historic_world_GDP_per_capita

FertilityRatesWorld

ChildLabor

Why is this?

One possibility is what we saw in the industrial revolution in Western countries. As incomes rose, more and more children weren’t needed to work in sweatshops, and instead, families had the luxury to send their children to school instead. Not only did that keep children out of the workforce, but it allowed their children to have increased incomes for their own future because of their newly acquired education.

SchoolCompletion

2. People who live in urban areas tend to have lower birth rates than those in rural areas. Another reason is that populations in rural areas need their children to work in order to survive, and more children provides more income or labor.

UrbanFertility

3. Increased education rates are correlated with lower birth rates. I think this is correlated because not only are women busy getting and education instead of getting married and having babies, but with their higher education, it increases the likelihood of increased income, because their education provides better paying jobs.

I keep seeing again and again that poverty is related to so many different factors. It seems like if we eliminate poverty, we eliminate a lot of social problems as well.

Enrollment

EducationBirthRates

4. In areas with lower infant mortality rates, we see lower fertility rates. This is because mothers don’t need to have more children to get their desired number of children, because the children were dying as infants.

ChildMortality

5. Religion. In majority Muslim countries, there tend to be lower birth rates.

MuslimFertility

6. Average age of marriage influences birth rates around the world.

MarriageAgeFertility

7. Contraceptive use around the world is one possible factor but I couldn’t find sound research showing more contraceptive use over time. So we cannot assume this. Also, here’s a look at what methods people are using around the world, as well as, why people choose to not use contraceptives.

ContraceptiveWorldUse

ContraceptiveUse

NoUseReasons

The peer reviewed journal Science just came out with a study showing exactly how we can eliminate poverty

OR How to eliminate poverty without forced taxation (which hasn’t eliminated it anyway).

Here’s a cool fact: we now have evidence for the best way to reduce poverty in the world.

The journal Science has done a rigorous meta-analysis of different types of charities and concluded that the scientific evidence is statistically significant and we can eliminate poverty without forced taxation. Here is the pdf without the whole needing to login thing: (Source) Also, here’s a simpler article explaining the study in case you’re not interested in the jargon: (Source)

Cash, livestock, and training.

That’s it. 3 things.

Now let’s delve into what the heck that means.

1. Cash

People in 6 different countries were each given a cash grant of $150. That’s it, $150. 2 years later, households doing the program now had a total of $202, or the equivalent in purchasing power of $500.

How did they do that?

2. Livestock

The subjects were given a choice between sheep, goats, chicken, cattle, etc. A market analyst would sometimes help them make the decision as to which livestock to choose. Which leads me to the training part.

3. Training

The training provided about livestock included: how to manage a business with their livestock, including feeding, how to rear them, vaccines, and treatment of diseases.

Training also included: health education in nutrition, hygiene, clean water, psychosocial counseling, prenatal health, HIV prevention and medicine; traditional and financial education such as investment and savings; emotional support; and staff supervision for running their business.

What doesn’t work

The study found that microloans don’t increase quality of life or incomes significantly, because the people getting the loans cannot afford to pay them back. Especially at the very high interest rates, microcredit lending charities have to charge to stay open. These programs usually take 18 years to break even. (Source)

Just donated livestock alone was not enough to lift people out of poverty alone.

Just cash while a short term solution, it did not help long term.

Services alone was not efficient enough as well.

Cost-benefit analysis

Most charities do not pass the cost-benefit analysis test. Most charities are costly to run and require high amounts of fundraising money to operate. Very often, it costs more to operate than the benefit the charity gives to others.

What am I supposed to do? How could someone like me help with extreme poverty in the world?

I did an exhaustive search of the best charities that do the cash, livestock, and training programs. The best rated one I found that had the best benefits was easily FXB International.

And here is why I like them so much:

  1. They only help the poorest of poor families in the world.
  2. Their model was developed with input by Harvard University experts.
  3. Their program is based on eliminating the five drivers of poverty: nutrition, health, education, housing, and income.
  4. They’ve already lifted 83,500 people out of poverty; the size of small city.
  5. They have a proven track record that 86% of the people they help STAY out of poverty 4 years later.
  6. They’ve been around for 27 years.
  7. They have great transparency for where their money goes.
  8. Only 12% of the money goes to overhead. That means for every $1 you donate, .88 cents goes to the actual person you’re helping.
  9. It only costs $140 per year to help lift one person out of poverty, for a 3 year program.

So, if you have $140 lying around that you weren’t going to spend in a better place. Here is their donation page: https://fxb.org/donate/