Thursday, November 30, 2006

Remember rehabilitation?

The United States famously locks up more people per capita than any other country, with about 7 million people currently behind bars, on probation or on parole (2.2 million of them are actually in prison or jail).

This is not a statistic to be particularly proud of. As with health care, where we spend more than anybody else and achieve mediocre results, we imprison more than anybody else and achieve mediocre results.

For some kinds of crime, of course, imprisonment is the only answer. But that's the most expensive and harmful way to do it. Not only does imprisonment cost tons of money; it takes people out of the work force and turns them into useless hunks of meat.

Maybe it doesn't have to be that way.

It is one of the least-told stories in American crime-fighting. New York, the safest big city in the nation, achieved its now-legendary 70 percent drop in homicides even as it locked up fewer and fewer people in the past decade. The number of prisoners in the city has dropped from 21,449 in 1993 to 14,129 this past week. That runs counter to the national trend, in which prison admissions have jumped 72 percent during that time....

For three decades, Congress and dozens of legislatures have worked to write tougher anti-crime measures. Often the only controversy has centered on how to finance the construction of prison cells.

New York City officials, by contrast, are debating whether to turn some old cells in downtown Brooklyn into luxury shops.

"If you want to drive down crime, the experience of New York shows that it's ridiculous to spend your first dollar building more prison cells," said Michael Jacobson, who served as New York's correction commissioner for former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and now is president of the Vera Institute of Justice, which studies crime-fighting trends worldwide....

New York was not the only city in which crime and imprisonment fell in tandem during the 1990s. From 1993 to 2001, homicides in San Diego declined by 62 percent while prison sentences dropped by 25 percent.

I'm sure the booming economy of the 90s had something to do with that -- which is another way of saying that a lot of crime is not the result of evil people but the result of lack of economic opportunity. So one way to fight crime is to increase economic opportunity.

But New York identifies another factor: drug treatment and mental-health counseling. In other words, by helping people with the problems that landed them in prison in the first place, you help them reach a point where crime is no longer an attractive option because they have better options and more to lose.

Another instructive statistic:

From 1992 to 2002, Idaho's prison population grew by 174 percent. the largest percentage increase in the nation. Yet violent crime in that state rose by 14 percent. In West Virginia, the prison population increased by 171 percent, and violent crime rose 10 percent. In Texas, the prison population jumped by 168 percent, and crime dropped by 11 percent.

The cause-effect there is unclear, of course. But it should certainly give us pause to think. Perhaps prisons should be reserved for those who truly need to be locked away. For the rest, attention should be focused on changing the conditions -- be they personal or societal -- that make crime an attractive option in the first place.

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Blogger PULSE410 said...

I think you are right on the money! I have been involved in the drug abuse field for over 30 years, on both sides. I was a "junkie", and a counselor,Board member, spearker at national conf., and on and on If you educate people, give them reasons and funds for a better life, it WILL lower the addiction rate which will in turn lower the crime rate!! I really do believe however, that corrections is such a cottage industry , that efforts to lower the crime rate is not a top priority in government!..PULSE410

12/04/2006 12:57 PM  
Blogger Sean Aqui said...

Pulse: Thanks. I hope you're wrong about the whole cottage industry thing. I can be idealistic sometimes, but I really hate to think we'd keep building prisons simply because of the economic desires of the prison industry.

12/04/2006 3:15 PM  

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