Jails Overflow, While Justice Flags

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Jails Overflow, While Justice Flags

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One of the most popular political platforms in recent years is that of being tough on crime. People want to be safe; they want their children to be safe; they want their communities to be safe. So, a "lock them up and throw away the key" mentality motivated the legislation of strict crime laws, which in turn reduced some crime and filled America's jails to overflowing.

Britain's jails are also overcrowded. The BBC recently solicited people's opinions about what to do about the problem (Web published, Aug. 28, 2003). Several people advocated the same "get tough" approach the United States has been following. Michaela Manvill of Devon advises: "Prisons should go back to the way they used to be, two to four people to a cell, locked in them for 23 hours a day with only porridge or bread to eat and water to drink!"

Several recommended the reinstitution of the death penalty—by hanging.

But the results of the U.S. "get tough on crime" approach are receiving mixed reviews.

U.S. jails and prisons currently hold more than 2 million men and women, according to data recently published by the Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS). That translates into one in every 142 Americans. The present ratio of the population in prison is more than four times what it was in the mid 1970s, five times the rate of imprisonment in Britain, eight times the rate in France and 14 times the rate in Japan (Charles Meredith, "Education Key to Addressing Prison Cost," 2003, The Morning Call).

As with any statistics, these can be interpreted in different ways, depending upon what one chooses to emphasize. Liberal voices decry skyrocketing numbers of arrests and incarcerations for relatively minor offenses, while conservative voices applaud decreased violent crime trends.

The liberal New York Times editorialized recently: "Locking the door and throwing away the key may make for good campaign sound bites, but it is a costly and inhumane crime policy" ("The Growing Inmate Population," July 31, 2003). One major reason for the increase is stricter drug laws, with mandatory jail time. Drug offenders make up more than half of all federal prisoners. Another is the "three-strike" laws (a third felony conviction automatically results in a long sentence, regardless of the seriousness of the crimes).

Jeff Jacoby of The Boston Globe disagrees: "Actually, keeping known criminals locked up is a sensible and effective crime policy. The [New York] Times laments that it costs $22,000 per year to keep each inmate in custody, but that is not an exorbitant price for preventing millions of annual murders, rapes, armed robberies, and assaults. The cost to society of a single armed robbery has been estimated at more than $50,000; multiply that by the 12 or 13 attacks the average released prisoner commits per year, and $22,000 an inmate looks like...quite a bargain" ("More Prisoners, Less Crime," Aug. 29, 2003).

The BJS report indicates that the "get tough" approach may indeed be successful with most violent crimes, including robbery and aggravated assault. Homicide and forcible rape, however, are up an average of .8 percent and 4.0 percent respectively over the last year (FBI figures). Comparing the rates of violent crime (other than these exceptions) to 10 years ago, the numbers are down an impressive 54.6 percent.

But it doesn't help to use bits and pieces of the report to make political points. Jacoby intimated the high cost represented in the BJS statistics. Let's look into that.

Choking costs

In light of the current deficit, every level of government is feeling the budget crunch—prisons included. What does it cost to keep 2,021,223 men and women in prison? The already alluded to average annual cost of $22,000 per year translates into the staggering figure of $44 billion per year to make criminals "do the time."

Of the total, 1,200,203 are in state penitentiaries; 665,475 are in municipal and county lockups. The cost of keeping them there is choking state and local government budgets, already suffering from sharply reduced revenues in a sluggish economy.

Direct expenditure to house prisoners in the United States rocketed 442 percent from 1982 to 1999. This does not include the cost of investigating, arresting, trying and convicting offenders. Police costs for the same period rose 244 percent, while judicial costs went up 314 percent (BJS figures).

What's the "sticker price" from arrest to conviction to incarceration for every level of government? BJS reporting shows that the federal government paid out $4 billion in direct expenditures in 1982; by 1999, it was paying $21 billion, an increase of 419 percent. Counties were paying $9 billion in 1982 and about $35 billion by 1999. States paid out $10 billion in 1982; by 1999, their costs were over $50 billion. And, municipalities spent $12 billion in 1982 and a choking $39 billion in 1999 (BJS; all figures are rounded off).

Costs have only gone up since 1999, while revenues have seriously declined. Many prisons are overcrowded, and building new ones is not cheap. An Associated Press report puts the cost of building new jails at $100,000 per cell ("More Inmates, Less Cash," July 28, 2003).

Some might say that's what society has to put out in order to protect itself from crime. That would be true, if imprisoning people resulted in their rehabilitation, but the facts demonstrate that is not the case.


"Recidivism," according to Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary means, "a tendency to relapse into a previous condition or mode of behavior; especially: relapse into criminal behavior." Do prisons rehabilitate people, turning them into productive, stable citizens?

BJS statisticians Drs. Patrick A. Langan and David J. Levin tracked 272,111 prisoners in 15 states after their release in 1994. There are four different measures of recidivism: (1) rearrest; (2) reconviction; (3) resentencing to prison; (4) return to prison with/without a new sentence. Lest we bog down in statistics, we will concentrate on just the first—rearrest.

Consider that 67.5 percent of prisoners released—two out of every three—were rearrested within the three-year period (not necessarily for the same type of crime that originally put them behind bars). "Released prisoners with the highest rearrest rates were robbers (70.2%), burglars (74.0%), larcenists (74.6%), motor vehicle thieves (78.8%), those in prison for possessing or selling stolen property (77.4%), and those in prison for possessing, using, selling weapons (70.2%)" ("Recidivism of Prisoners Released in 1994," BJS, June 2002, p. 1). (This is the most up-to-date study. It takes a long time and a great deal of coordination to produce such an analysis.)

Are longer prison sentences more effective in rehabilitating criminals into good citizens? "No evidence was found that spending more time in prison raises the recidivism rate" (ibid., p. 2).

Are prisons at least becoming more effective in rehabilitating the men and women behind their bars than they were in the past? No, they aren't.

In "Reentry Trends in the United States," the BJS compares a similar three-year study done from 1983-86 with the one above, from 1994-97. Within three years of release, 62.5 percent had been arrested again—actually better than the recidivism rate 11 years later.

There are two serious underlying and largely unaddressed problems that affect recidivism. About 80 percent of prison inmates have serious drug and alcohol problems (Ronald Fraser, "Prison Alternatives Would Save Florida Millions of Dollars," The Tallahassee Democrat, Feb. 14, 2003). Additionally, most prison inmates lack the education and/or skills to be able to secure and maintain employment upon release.

Since most of the emphasis has been on getting criminals arrested, little has been done to correct these problems.

"Make 'em pay" vs. "make them productive"

Many, unfortunately, continue their drug habits and their violent ways behind bars, meaning that they are potentially worse off upon release than they were when incarcerated.

What alternatives are there? Forced to economize, a number of states are experimenting with ways to reduce judicial expenditures. One method is the implementation of "drug courts," which specialize in imposing sentences of treatment versus jail time for drug users. Not only do these programs save money, but they turn drug offenders into productive citizens.

The other major alternative is to provide a basic education, including trade skills to undereducated inmates, to make them more employable and stable, upon release. Early results from both experimental programs are promising.

In our money-driven society, the motivation for implementing these programs is purely financial. If it helps the bottom line, it has a chance. There's surprisingly little orientation for seeking ways that would benefit both victims and criminals.

Receiving a sliver of attention is "creative sentencing," by which convicted criminals work to pay direct restitution to victims of property crimes. Beautiful in its simplicity, it's a shame that this program is not at the top of the list for such crimes.

Restitution was the core principle of the property statutes God gave the nation of Israel in Exodus 22. Everyone benefits: The victim actually regains property or money taken from him; the process is rehabilitative for the criminal; the state does not have to pay to incarcerate him.

The Bible teaches that justice needs to be both swift and fair. Any approach short of that only encourages criminal behavior: "Because the sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil" (Ecclesiastes 8:11).

But the Bible also teaches mercy and repentance, dealing with people on an individual basis, rather than with "a one-size-fits-all" approach to crime. God's way is not to punish for punishment's sake, but rather with the objective of turning the heart and mind of the offender away from the sin (that is, breaking the highest law—His, 1 John 3:4) that destroys them, to lead the person into a lawful way of living that will bring rich and abundant blessings for him and all of society.

Religious groups often take Jesus' words, "I was in prison and you came to Me" (Matthew 25:36), as license to evangelize. But they ignore the context, in which Jesus is speaking in terms of meeting people's needs, and the broader context of the Bible, which neither encourages nor authorizes stereotypical proselytizing. Presently, the two pressing needs of prisoners (who can be rehabilitated) are recovering from alcohol and drug addictions, at the same time as getting a basic education.

What a different world this would be if the entire justice system revolved around meeting people's needs—protecting the innocent, and helping the guilty to change (if they possibly can).

We aren't advocates for prison reform, but rather announcers of the fact that Christ will change the entire system. This messianic prophecy implies the perfect blend of fairness and firmness: "But with righteousness He shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; He shall strike the earth with the rod of His mouth, and with the breath of His lips He shall slay the wicked" (Isaiah 11:4). —WNP