January 17, 2003
Prison reform touted for budget relief

An op-ed in today's Chron suggests reducing the prison population as a means of helping the current budget crisis. It's something I've talked about before (see here and here), and it's something that I hope picks up momentum. As the piece notes, if Louisiana can pass this kind of reform, surely Texas can.

The good news is that amid the continued lock-em-up fervor, there are reforms brewing, according to this Atlantic article. Here's a good example of common sense yielding good results:

A few prison systems, notably Oregon's, have been trying out more-practical kinds of vocational training, geared to job openings in fields such as telemarketing and computer-aided mapping of water and tax districts. This has cut recidivism. Meanwhile, Missouri's prison system, under the leadership of Dora Schriro, has come up with a more comprehensive approach whose premise is that prison life should actually resemble real life as much as is practicable. Every offender engages "during work and non-work hours in productive activities that parallel those of free society," as Schriro describes the rules in a paper written for the National Institute of Justice. "In work hours offenders go to school and work and, as applicable, to treatment for sex offenses, chronic mental-health problems, and drug and alcohol dependencies. In non-work hours they participate in community service, reparative activities, and recreation."

The payoff is that "from 1994 (when the program went into effect) to 1999 the proportion of inmates returned to prison in Missouri for felony offenses fell from 33 percent to 20 percent." Sounds pretty good to me.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on January 17, 2003 to Budget ballyhoo | TrackBack

I'd have to see some pretty solid figures to believe that "vocational training" makes a serious dent recidivism rates, because national studies in the past have shown little to no effect on recidivism from rehabilitative programs. The Atlantic's word simply isn't good enough to refute the views of most penologists on this subject. The simple fact remains that rehabilitative programs have overall been unmittigated failures.

Moreover, I would suggest that the conclusions drawn from the Missouri program are fundamentally flawed because they did not take into account reductions in crime nationwide between 1994 and 1999 (The national crime rate reached a peak in 1994, and then dropped subtantially over the next few years, as this graph shows). If that statistic had been indexed to reduced crime rates overall, the results may have been less impressive, or even neutral. There are also other factors to consider, like the overall incarceration rate in Missouri, which also weren't considered.

Charles, the truth is that by letting people out of jail you'll simply increase the crime rate. There is no mystical utopian society where criminals "learn their lesson" in prison because of the way it is managed. The best that can be done is to guarantee through prison that criminals are 1) kept off the streets, and 2) given every opportunity to reform themselves if they want to. Anything beyond that is naive and overly idealistic.

Posted by: Owen Courrèges on January 18, 2003 2:35 PM