Crisis often fuels innovation, and if there’s one area of our public infrastructure that has been in crisis and in desperate need of innovation it is our corrections system. As it stands currently, our criminal justice system is the product of a series of cross-directional policy goals and an almost schizophrenic response to social change. The result has been to dramatically increase the categorization of criminal behavior, and thus dramatically increase the number of criminal charges and convictions while simultaneously starving facilities of necessary funds required to meet the growing demand of increased incarceration rates.
The result is nothing short of a constitional crisis in our prison system.
We’ve seen two approaches in response to this growing crisis. One has been the privatization of the prison system where states take tax payer dollars to pay private businesses to run and staff prisons and jails. These facilities remain private entites and are allowed to operate for-profit.
So far that experiment has turned out to be nothing short of a humanitarian disaster and corporate boondoggle, with allegations of widespread abuse and corruption being the most common theme among the various enterprises. Rarely, if ever do these facilities operate at a tax-savings to citizens, not to mention the fact that oversight and accountablility are far more complicated with private, for-profit enterprises.
Another response is to amend criminal laws, particularly criminal sentences. Many states are re-thinking the idea of mandatory minimum sentences for certain kinds of drug offenses, and as a result, have taken some early stabs at moving away from a punitive approach to drug offenses and towards a therapeutic one, and we are just now starting to see the results.
A report looking at the first year following New York’s elimination of mandatory minimum prison sentences for first and many second-time non-violent felony drug offenses showed that the reforms helped keep an estimated 1600 from entering state prisons. Instead, offenders were sent to either residential or outpatient treatment programs.
Since most of these programs last an average of 18 months it is still too early to draw any conclusions as to whether or not diversion has led to a decrease in recidivism, many are optimistic that’s exactly what we’ll see. They point to early reports of a decrease in felony drug arrests as evidence that treatment, not prison, is the best way to deal with substance-abuse related crimes.
But not everyone is quick to applaud the reforms, and some would even like to tie them recent upticks in violent crime. Opponents of the reforms argue that ironically the law reduces the incentives for defendants to accept treatment since those treatment programs last at least a year.
And since judges no longer have to sentence individuals to a minimum prison sentence, many have faced shorter local jail sentences or even probation for the drug offenses. They suspect this turn-over is related to an increase in violent crime, though they acknowledge that it’s hard to separate out the impact a prolonged recession has had on violent crime.
The reform’s detractors however do acknowledge that by removing mandatory sentences and reintroducing judicial discretion, the new sentencing laws force prosecutors and judges to develop a much fuller picture of defendants. The result is a much more appropriate sentence even if diversion to treatment is not appropriate. Given the current state of our correctional facilities, it’s hard to argue that smarter sentencing is a bad thing.
photo courtesy of ardbardwell via Flickr