Our soaring prison population can elicit two possible conclusions: either Americans are the most evil people on the planet, or there is something terribly wrong with the way we battle crime in this country. Nils Christie’s idea to reduce U.S. dependence on prisons for punishments, touted by Wired magazine as shocking enough to change the world, is a message we cannot ignore.
Christie is right to point out that our gluttony for imprisonment has catapulted us to first place as the world’s number 1 incarcerator. The $68 billion financial cost of locking up one in every 100 American adults is only surpassed by the human cost of ripping apart our families and communities. And many of the people we’re caging have committed no violent offense. We’re locking up people who make us angry –- not who make us afraid.
But the answer to our corrections crisis is not to go soft on crime –- surrender and pretend that crime doesn’t exist. Our rules do matter. We must hold offenders accountable for the way they have wounded their victims.
The truth though, is that there are often better ways than prison to hold offenders responsible and keep us safe. Alternative punishment programs, like enforcing drug and mental health treatment while under supervision in the community, require offenders to change the lifestyles that led them down the path into crime. These programs are tough on offenders -- not by locking them into cells but by demanding they equip themselves to contribute positively to the communities they once harmed.
Of course, these programs aren’t for all offenders. There are certainly people dangerous enough to be locked away for a long time. But for the people who pose a minimal threat, evidence shows that alternative punishments have remarkable success in preventing reoffense.
Take the Palmer Mental Health Court operating in Alaska as one tiny example. Diverting nondangerous offenders into intensive mental health treatment in the community rather than sending them to prison has cut reoffense rates by 35%. Graduates of California’s drug treatment program have reoffense rates 13% lower than those who were referred but did not complete the program. Giving offenders in Hawaii’s Opportunity Probation and Enforcement 24-hour jail stays rather than prison sentences immediately after their probation violations cut dirty drug tests by over 40%. And Changing Lives through Literature, a rather intriguing program in Massachusetts that requires offenders to participate in literature seminars while on probation, has cut reconviction rates by a quarter. Similar stories of transformation abound.
If we really do want to confront crime head on and win, we have to recognize that prisons are often too blunt an instrument.