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Wisconsin: Yet Another Study Showing Incarceration is the Wrong Approach

A-Block at Alcatraz (2206096229)

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A recently released study from California-based Human Impact Partners is stirring things up in Wisconsin. As with so many that have come before it, the findings point toward a need to reduce reliance on incarceration, instead shifting the focus to treatment programs and community corrections. The study states that millions of dollars can be saved and recidivism rates reduced this way.

JS Online brings us the pertinent numbers. First is the number that is giving politicians sticker shock:

Investing in addiction and mental health treatment, instead of prison, for nonviolent offenders would likely lower crime, strengthen communities and save the state millions of dollars annually, according to a study released this week by a coalition pushing to expand Wisconsin’s drug courts and other alternatives-to-prison programs.

The health-impact assessment, by the California-based Human Impact Partners, recommends the state increase funding for its existing treatment alternative programs from about $1 million to $75 million annually, expand eligibility, and add $20 million for mental health treatment, jobs programs and other, related services.

Seventy-five times what is currently being spent, that is a number that can make one reel. Of course, like everything, context makes a difference. That investment can help prevent even scarier numbers, like the amount being spent on prisons for instance:

Wisconsin incarcerates more than 22,000 people a year, up from about 7,000 in 1990 and more than double the number imprisoned in Minnesota, according to the Department of Corrections. And it has another 67,000 ex-offenders on probation and parole. The corrections budget has ballooned since 1990 from under $200 million a year to $1.3 billion in 2011, now surpassing the money spent on the University of Wisconsin system.

Another thing to consider is that this issue does not exist in a vacuum. Adopting a rehabilitative path over incarceration also impacts numerous other aspects of the problem, driving down state expenditures for each. Scott Wales is a criminal defense attorney in Wisconsin who writes one heck of an informative blog. He recently weighed in with the following:

The Human Impact Partners study says that an investment of $75 million into treatment and alternative courts could cut annual prison admissions by about 40% and jail admissions by 21,000. It could also cut recidivism rates by 12-16% and cut crime by an estimated 20%.

It would make mental health treatment and drug and alcohol treatment available to thousands who need it, helping them to live a crime-free life. Perhaps most importantly, it would keep nonviolent offenders within the community, helping them to be productive members of society, working, and contributing. This, they say, would even reduce the number of children placed in foster care every year.

This has been the core of our message since the start. Our documentary is entitled It’s More Expensive to Do Nothing for a reason. As more and more data come in, especially from multi-year studies, it has become the unmistakeable conclusion.

The problem we face is that it involves up-front costs to get the ball truly rolling. No politician wants to be seen throwing funds at something new when budget cuts are so deep and vicious. The looming price of enacting these programs often occludes the fact that those costs are dwarfed by the saving reaped once they are in place.

Wales also notes that another antagonistic refrain heard when this approach comes up the it is “soft on crime.” His comment on this fallacy is accurate and succinct:

 And the ‘soft on crime’ argument is played out. There is no evidence that being ‘tough’ (when it includes lengthy prison sentences) is any more effective than treatment. Actually, there is evidence to the contrary.

Come on folks, it really is vastly more expensive to do nothing.

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First Decline in Prison Population Since 1972 Coincides With Crime Decline

Tennessee State PrisonFor the second consecutive year, data released by the Bureau of Justice Statistics revealed a decline in the adult correctional population, while crime rates decreased as well. [Prisoners in 2010 PDF] Even more promising is the decline in the total U.S. prison population – caused primarily by a decrease in the state prison population (the federal prison population experienced a slight increase).

From the report’s introduction:

On December 31, 2010, state and federal correctional authorities had jurisdiction over 1,605,127 prisoners, a decrease of 9,228 prisoners from yearend 2009. The combined U.S. prison population decreased 0.6% in 2010, the first decline since 1972. The 2010 imprisonment rate for the nation was 497 sentenced
prisoners per 100,000 U.S. residents, which is 1 in 201 residents

Two of the highlights from the report stand out in particular:

In 2009, the most recent data available, 53% of state prison inmates were serving time for violent offenses, 19% for property, 18% for drug, and 9% for public order or other offenses.„

About half (51%) of federal inmates in 2010 were serving time for drug offenses, 35% for public-order offenses (largely weapons and immigration), and less than 10% each for violent and property offenses.

The jump from 9 to 35% for public order offenses ties in disturbingly well my assertion in a prior post that we need to look at arrest rates. Since 1972 the number of juveniles arrested for thing other than minor traffic violations experience a jump from 225 of the population to a full third of it. This would seem to correlate well with the findings above.

Image Source: kelseywynns on Flickr, used under its Creative Commons license

Juvenile Justice in Illinois Gets a Failing Grade

Prison WindowIllinois’ juvenile justice system is failing.  Failing to rehabilitate offenders. Failing to help them return to life in their communities. Failing to provide a clearly spelled out release procedure.  Failing to provide proper case management. The list goes on. These are not my assertions, they are taken from a state commission’s study slated for release next Tuesday.

The proof is in the rate of recidivism. How many youthful offenders return to incarceration for further offenses? More than half, according to the study by the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission. Additionally the report calls the Illinois juvenile justice system ” in many ways, the ‘feeder system’ to the adult criminal justice system and a cycle of crime, victimization and incarceration.”

Ryan Haggerty of The Chicago Tribune brings us the words of the commission’s chairman:

The commission was ordered by law to develop recommendations to help youth offenders successfully transition back into their communities. The commission’s members found a system that is in desperate need of an overhaul, said its chairman, Judge George W. Timberlake, retired chief judge of the 2nd Judicial Circuit.

‘We actually saw a system that doesn’t work so well, if we gauge the worth of the system in increasing public safety, doing so at the least possible cost and improving the outcomes of kids who otherwise might be part of future criminal activity,’ Timberlake said in a phone interview Monday.

John Kelly, a writer for YouthToday, breaks the report’s findings down into four key areas of criticism:

Release Procedures and the Lack Therof – The commission observed 230 Prisoner Review Board (PRB) hearings, the only way to be released in Illinois short of serving a full sentence. Their conclusions were that the  proceedings that were “rushed” and confusing to offenders. Timberlake said that the release process needs to be clearly defined and advised mandated review hearings every six months coupled with the addition of a legal advocate to each facility.

Reentry Practices – The DJJ still uses Department of Corrections standard for adult parole, something at highly at odds with good juvenile reentry practices.

Excessive Parole Revocation – 54% of juveniles who had their parole revoked  were returned to incarceration for a technicality.  The most frequent reasons being curfew violation, truancy or for home disturbances.

‘We are not suggesting future crimes should not lead to re-incarceration,’ Timberlake said, ‘but it was surprising to find that what could be considered normal teen behavior leads to a return to prison.’

Poor and Archaic Case Management – paper-only master files on juveniles are only the beginning. From several of the terms  Timberlake used, “coal-fired computer” and “mainframe that is not susceptible to much upgrade,” leave little doubt as to the currency of their approach. An approach I might add that they share with the Department of Corrections, so it is not only primitive but also geared towards adults not juveniles.

I highly advise Mr. Kelly’s article for further reading as he examines each of these in more detail and also provides some very informative and even handed commentary. [Illinois Probe Finds Rushed, Unmeasured Process for Juvenile Release, Reentry and Parole on YouthToday]

 Image Source: derekskey on Flickr. used under it’s Creative Commons license