Our current criminal justice system has outrageous costs with unsatisfactory results. With the burden of prison costs resting largely on taxpayers, we should expect to have a safer and more productive population. However, the United States has one of the highest rates of repeat offenders. By focusing on rehabilitation, we can reduce prison costs and decrease the rate of recidivism.
There are three times as many people suffering from mental illness in prisons compared to the general population. That equates to 15 to 20 percent of inmates with mental illnesses. Until the 1970s, our prison systems revolved around the concept of rehabilitation. Court sentences mandated treatment for psychological issues and encouraged the convicted to pursue occupational skills while incarcerated. The Stanford Prison Experiment in 1973 showed evidence that even mentally healthy individuals showed increased rates of depression and sadism when placed in prison-like compounds. On top of that, without rehabilitation, inmates encounter issues obtaining legitimate careers when released due to lack of social and occupational skills. However, limited resources have become a roadblock in creating programs to help those afflicted with these serious illnesses. Although programs are in place for basic mental health services, we struggle to provide in-depth care for the enormous amount of patients in dire need of rehabilitative services that populate prisons (Benson, 2003).
Many people who lack the opportunity to obtain a solid and thorough education end up incarcerated. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, in State and Federal prisons and local jails in 1997, 31% of probationers had not completed high school or its equivalent. In comparison, 18% of the general population age 18 or older had not finished the 12th grade (Harlow, 2003). This disproportionate number shows us that education is a vital factor in becoming a successful and productive member of society. People cannot make an honest living without a decent education, and will often turn to crime in order to survive. Also, without the knowledge and higher order thinking skills that are developed in school, people do not have the means to problem solve and understand potential consequences for their actions. Around 1 in 6 inmates in Federal prisons did not complete high school because they were convicted of a crime or served time in correctional facilities (Harlow, 2003). So, not only does lack of education lead to crime, but criminal activity leads to lack of education, and these people end up in an endless cycle of crime and punishment, without ever being able to advance to become productive members of society. “Over a third of jail inmates and a sixth of the general population said the main reason they quit school was because of academic problems, behavior problems, or lost interest. About a fifth of jail inmates and two-fifths of the general population gave economic reasons for leaving school, primarily going to work, joining the military, or needing money (Harlow, 2003).” The problem goes even deeper when we look at the effects of race and socio-economic factors. About 44% of black State prison inmates and 53% of Hispanic inmates had not graduated from high school or received a GED compared to 27% of whites in State prisons. State prison inmates who grew up in homes without two parents, with an incarcerated parent, or on welfare or in subsidized housing were less likely than other inmates to have obtained a high school diploma/GED or attended a postsecondary institution (Harlow, 2003). The issue expands even further when we address disabilities, as about 44% of inmates with disabilities do not finish high school or obtain a GED, and approximately 38% of inmates who completed 11 years or less of school did not have a job before they went to prison. These numbers show that lack of opportunity can lead to desperate measures in order to support oneself. Without a proper education, people cannot obtain work, and without work people often resort to crime. When they enter the prison system, they are introduced to more criminals and learn from them, they enter into a sort of camaraderie, much like in the hit Netflix series “Orange is the New Black.” Without outside influence, people tend to become more like their peers and emulate their behaviors. When you add in the fact that they already have no education or job history, and now they have a criminal record, you can see how a normal life might seem like a hopeless endeavor. This leads ex-prisoners right back into the only lifestyle they know, which inevitably leads them right back to prison. On average, a felony bail bond amounts to around $10,000 , or the equivalent of 8 months’ income for the typical detained defendant. Because of this, people with low incomes are most likely going to have to sit in jail while they wait for sentencing. So, not only does poverty often lead down a path to incarceration; incarceration itself also causes poverty, as “a criminal record and time spent in prison destroys wealth, creates debt, and decimates job opportunities (Sawyer, Wagner, 2019).” Black Americans typically make up the majority of those incarcerated in America, making up 40% of the incarcerated population despite representing only 13% of U.S residents. Women also face higher proportional incarceration rates, often due to financial obstacles and inability to afford bail.
Another important factor in finding ways to reduce prison costs is the costs involved in imprisonment and rehabilitation versus the death penalty. “The fee to cover the average cost of incarceration for Federal inmates in Fiscal Year 2015 was $31,977.65 ($87.61 per day). The average annual cost to confine an inmate in a Residential Re-entry Center for Fiscal Year 2015 was $26,082.90 ($71.46 per day (Kenney, 2016).” One of the major issues with the plan for rehabilitation is the lack of resources. We have mental healthcare workers with enormous caseloads who are just able to treat the basic mental health needs of inmates. On the other hand, an analysis by the office of the Tennessee comptroller found that the average cost of death penalty trials cost almost 50 percent more than both trials with life without parole and life with the possibility of parole (Robinson, 2008). This is due to the cost of legal representation for a more thorough thirteen step process and a much more complex case, time spent in preparation and for the appeal process, and number of people involved in the case. “A 2016 study at Susquehanna University found that on average death row inmates cost $1.12 million more than general population inmates (Robinson, 2008).” With over a million dollars in savings, we could invest so much more into rehabilitation programs. Now imagine if we were to factor in the results of reduction in recidivism. Recidivism refers to “a person’s relapse into criminal behavior, often after the person receives sanctions or undergoes intervention for a previous crime. Recidivism is measured by criminal acts that resulted in rearrest, reconviction or return to prison with or without a new sentence during a three-year period following the prisoner’s release.(Recidivism, 2019).” Rehabilitation refers to reduction in crime resulting from “repairing” an individual by addressing their needs or deficits. Bureau of Justice Statistics studies have found high rates of recidivism among released prisoners during a 9-year follow-up period. The researchers found that the 401,288 state prisoners released in 2005 had 1,994,000 arrests during the 9-year period, an average of 5 arrests per released prisoner, and sixty percent of these arrests occurred during years 4 through 9 (Recidivism, 2019). In Texas, our state correctional facility spending is $130.35 per capita ($3.6 billion), with 567 inmates per 100,000 residents, making Texas the 7th highest in the country (Sauter 2019).
So, we know the numbers prove that rehabilitation is the most financially responsible route, but does it actually work? Are inmates able to be rehabilitated and turn from their lifestyle of crime and become actual beneficial members of our country? Let’s take a look at Norway’s criminal justice system. Fewer than 4,000 of Norways 5 million citizens are currently behind bars. And of those who are convicted of crimes, only 20% ever return to prison. With one of the lowest recidivism rates in the world, they must be doing something right. In comparison, the United States has a 5 year recidivism rate of 76.6% (Sterbenz, 2014). Norway uses a full rehabilitative approach with their justice system. In Norwegian prisons, inmates are being prepared for life on the outside. They build friendships with the guards, have immersive vocational programs and have no bars on their windows. All criminals have a maximum potential sentence of 21 years, but 5 year increments can be added indefinitely if they prisoner has not shown evidence of being rehabilitated. Seems like it’s working to me.
It is often believed that we can rehabilitate people convicted of minor, non-violent crimes, but that violent criminals must be locked up for life in order to protect society. People argue that violent criminals are dangerous, and that there is something fundamentally wrong with them that cannot be fixed, so society is better off with them kept apart from others they could potentially harm. However, according to research by Sawyer and Wagner (2019), people convicted of sexual assault and homicide are actually among the least likely to reoffend after release. People convicted of homicide are the least likely to be re-arrested, and those convicted of rape or sexual assault have re-arrest rates roughly 30-50% lower than people convicted of larceny or motor vehicle theft. “The largest number of prisoners are incarcerated for violent crimes in state prisons (often convicted of violent crimes, but may have multiple other crimes that they weren’t jailed for), and the second largest is people in local jails who have not been convicted of crimes, those who cannot afford bail and must spend their time waiting for trial in a jail cell (Sawyer, Wagner, 2019).”
According to my research, rehabilitation does work and it is the most financially feasible approach to high prison costs. By adopting Norway’s model of focusing on vocational training and pleasant treatment of prisoners, we can help create stability and skills that lead to a successful transition into the outside world. By allowing the true punishment to be lack of freedom, we can end the cycle caused by little to no opportunity that so often leads to criminal activity in the first place. We need to shift our focus away from punishing the poor and disadvantaged, to rehabilitating those who have been led toward bad decisions through poor circumstances, and opening the doors for them through education, training, and mental health services.