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Wednesday, August 29, 2012

More evidence against increasing incarcerations

In the past, I have written about child protection issues that arise from a parent being incarcerated. These problems include fracturing family functioning, increasing the economic and social burden on the family and resulting in stresses that can then lead to neglect and other forms of maltreatment. Certainly, a case can be made that the needs of society may over ride those concerns, particularly with violent and repeat offenders. Thus, a new study by the PEW Centre on the States offers some fresh and articulate focus on the possible costs and benefits of incarceration.

The study, titled, Time Served, The high costs, low return of longer prison sentences, concludes that for a substantial number of offenders, "there is little or no evidence that keeping them locked up longer prevents additional crime" (p.4). That is a fairly significant conclusion particularly given the very high costs associated with incarceration. They also note that the public has become less focused on punishment and more focused on cost effectiveness and the use of tools to reduce recidivism. Good risk assessment can determine who is best for release and supervision.

The impact for families is not really measured in this work. But one also has to wonder what impact that children might have by a parent whose involvement with the criminal justice system is more focused on helping the parent address mental health or addiction issues. What lessons are there for the child? A society that supports positive change or one that is focused on punishment.

Consider that between 1990 and 2010, the US prison population grew by 109% at an average cost of around $24,000 per prisoner. They estimate that the extra time served without benefit is costing the US about $10 billion.

The argument is not about the violent offender who is likely to repeat his/her crime. It is about carefully determining who belongs in prison because reform will be unlikely to succeed. The report separates that there is a large amount of crime that is related to addictions, mental health and poverty. Treat the problem and your reduce the probability of further crime.

They also identify that work done to prepare the lower risk offender for reintegration into the community will positively impact the recidivism rate. Inmates who are poorly prepared for release struggle with integration and are then at higher risk to reoffend.  Creating a link to a rehabilitative approach seems to be socially desirable but also appears to have strong positive impacts on the costs of managing the criminal justice system. In times of high economic stress in countries, finding ways to reduce prison populations will reduce government expenditures. What this research tells us is that can be done without increasing risk to communities.

The report is available on the web through the PEW website.

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