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Manhattan Institute

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Prison Alternatives Have Been Tried and Found Wanting

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Prison Alternatives Have Been Tried and Found Wanting

New York Times Room for Debate October 29, 2015
Urban PolicyCrime
OtherPrisoner Reentry

Several misconceptions underlie the deincarceration movement and its efforts to increase diversion from prison.

Besides, most state prisoners are serving time for violent crimes, and very few are in for simple drug possession.

Prisons are assumed to be filled with harmless sad sacks who smoked a few joints and got caught. In fact, prison remains a lifetime achievement award for persistence in criminal offending. Criminals are already given numerous opportunities for supervision and programs in the community before they are finally sentenced to prison, as illustrated by the criminal justice history of Tyrone Howard, alleged murderer of New York Police Officer Randolph Holder. The average number of prior convictions for inmates released from state prison in 2005 was five, the average number of prior arrests was over 10, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. The JFA Institute has estimated that in only 3 percent of violent victimizations and property crime does the offender end up in prison.

Contrary to popular understanding, drug enforcement is not the driving force in the prison population, violent crime is. Only 3.6 percent of state prisoners were serving time for drug possession in 2013, most of their convictions pleaded down from trafficking; 54 percent of state prisoners were serving time for violent felonies. (State prisons hold 87 percent of the nation’s prisoners.) Fewer than 1 percent of drug offenders sentenced in federal court in 2014 were convicted of simple drug possession, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission.

Contrary to popular understanding, drug enforcement is not the driving force in the prison population, violent crime is.

It is also assumed that there exist a range of successful alternatives to prison that simply have not been implemented. In fact, nearly all of the alternatives being promoted today have been tried and found wanting.

In the 1990s, virtually every state implemented intensive supervised probation programs to divert offenders from prison. Not only did these programs not lower recidivism, if anything they worsened it, according to Stanford law professor Joan Petersilia. California’s Proposition 36, passed by voters in 2000, offered nonviolent drug offenders free drug treatment in lieu of incarceration. Arrests increased, even among those who completed treatment, according to Pepperdine University public policy professor Angela Hawken. Most offenders never showed up or went AWOL from their treatment program.

Drug courts reduce recidivism among offenders who complete treatment by as little as 12 percent over other efforts, but a large share of participants are terminated unsuccessfully, according to the Government Accountability Office. Moreover, drug courts are very expensive and not scalable. The risk assessment tools for screening drug diversion applicants are highly imperfect, as the Tyrone Howard case suggests.

The nation’s 20-year crime drop was achieved through a combination of proactive policing and increased incarceration. Ideally there would be alternatives to prison that produced the same public safety gains, but so far, alternatives that can be implemented reliably at large scale have not been found.

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