Base Prison Reform on What Works

Base Prison Reform on What Works

Each year, the U.S. spends nearly $40 billion on prisons. Yet the return on investment is not good as nearly 80 percent of released prisoners are rearrested within five years. Better public safety outcomes can be obtained for the same amount of money by doing three things: significantly expanding the delivery of effective programs; further reducing our reliance and spending on prisons; and placing greater emphasis on the use of validated risk assessments to help prison system officials make better programming and downsizing decisions. 

Decades of research have shown there are effective interventions that reduce recidivism by targeting known risk factors. For instance, the likelihood of recidivism rose by 13 percent when prisoners were “warehoused,” or idle in prison because of choice or a lack of resources. For the recently released, this diminished the chances of getting a job and made it harder to avoid committing another crime. Increasing prison programming resources — such as substance abuse treatment, cognitive-behavioral therapy, sex offender treatment, and education and employment programs — will lessen recidivism and increase the odds of succeeding. 

What is the best way to deliver more effective programming without increasing costs? The lack of money in state corrections budgets is a big reason why the nation’s imprisonment rate has fallen by more than 10 percent over the last decade. But while this decline is a step in the right direction — the U.S. has been overusing prison — downsizing alone will not result in less crime. It must be accompanied by a programming increase. 

Further downsizing the prison population would not only reduce costs, but also free up the physical space needed within prisons to provide more interventions. Prison populations can be reduced by decreasing the number of persons entering (or reentering) prison, and shortening the lengths of stay for those admitted to prison. But when individuals enter prison, it should be for long enough to participate in effective programs, which usually lasts between three and nine months.

The best way to reduce prison admissions safely would be to restrict probation and parole violators — which account for about two-thirds of all prison admissions — and only allow the more serious offenders who are more likely to get longer sentences. The less serious violators, who are mostly warehoused and idle due to their relatively brief sentences, should remain in the community. We can ensure better public safety outcomes by reallocating the “decarceration savings” to provide more programming resources for all probation and parole violators — for those in prison as well as for those who remain free.

If it’s necessary to extend the minimum length of a prison stay to at least five months for rehabilitation purposes, the same holds true for limiting how long most inmates should be imprisoned. Because inmates with longer sentences tend to be warehoused for much of their imprisonment, the average sentence length, five years, is ample time to participate in multiple effective interventions. Shortening confinement periods for more inmates with sentences longer than five years would generate “decarceration savings” that, once again, should be reinvested to ramp up the delivery of prison programming.

Downsizing the prison population to increase programming would require the correctional systems to make decisions relating to program placement and recidivism risk. Improving the quality of these decisions would require an extensive use of validated risk assessment instruments. Critics have raised concerns about whether algorithms and “big data” are being used to worsen racial and ethnic disparities. But they fail to point out that the alternative is just to rely on professional judgment — which has not performed well in predicting future behavior, including recidivism. To be sure, the design and use of actuarial risk assessments can and should improve. But it’s important to recognize that research has long shown that statistical prediction is the best approach we have.

Implementing evidence-based prison reform would require a shift from punishment to rehabilitation in both our ideology and practice — no small feat. One enduring school of thought has been that if prison is odious enough, it will jolt inmates to change their ways. Increasing the misery of the prison experience may satisfy the impulse for retribution, but it doesn’t lead to an efficient use of taxpayer dollars. If we want prisons to be leaner, more cost-effective, and more successful in reducing recidivism, we need reforms that are based on what’s been shown to work.

Grant Duwe is an academic adviser on criminal justice reform at the American Enterprise Institute and the Research Director of the Minnesota Department of Corrections. His recent AEI study on evidence-based prison reform can be found here.

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