What’s wrong with early release for nonviolent drug offenders?
Let me start out saying that the early release of nonviolent drug offenders can be a good thing: however, releasing without proper supervision, after-care services, housing and comprehensive community support can be a potential disaster.
Here are some facts: The United States is home to about 20 percent of the world’s population, but we house more than 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. In less than 30 years the U.S. penal population exploded from around 300,000 to more than 2 million, despite falling crime rates. Fifty percent of these prisoners are in for drug crimes. After spending 40 years working in corrections, I would say that another 30 to 40 percent are in prison for other crimes that are related to drug and/or alcohol addiction.
The war on drugs hasn’t worked for a variety of reasons. Primarily, it focused on interdiction, prosecution and incarceration without regard to treatment or reintegration. The ideas were sold by fear and ideology that if we just lock people up, we won’t need to ever deal with them again. The reality is that 90 percent of the people we put in prison will be coming back out in less than two years. They often come out with very little support and they have alienated their families, they have no job, and of course they must overcome the stigma that follows incarceration.
We know recidivism ranges between 30 to 70 percent. Research has demonstrated that a 30 percent reduction in recidivism is possible if the justice system applies current knowledge and best practices consistently and with fidelity. Hawaii’s Opportunity Probation and Enforcement is an intensive probation program that has the hardest-core drug users face random urinalysis once each week. Violators immediately spend a weekend or longer in jail. The difference is that punishment is swift, certain and fair. It is also complemented with treatment. They do not sit around waiting for a hearing or another trial but immediately face consequences of their actions. Approximately 80 percent stop using drugs in this program and it has been well researched.
We also know that people returning from jail or prison need community support in order to fully reintegrate back into society. Most jurisdictions provide somewhere between $20 to $50 (gate money), and may or may not provide transportation back to their community. Most do not have jobs, transportation or sufficient life skills. A high percentage have thousands of dollars in child support, fines and supervision fees. This is not to say that we shouldn’t hold the offender accountable, but we should be reasonable about our collection methods.
We should develop a comprehensive strategy that begins on the front end of the criminal justice system and have a meaningful intervention (including offender accountability) at every impact point, including re-entry. Stop incarcerating people we can supervise in the community. Incarcerate for longer periods of time those who provide high risk to reoffend or commit violent acts. The average cost to incarcerate is $29,000 per year, or approximately $80 per day. The average cost to supervise someone in the community is approximately $1,250 per year. Increase social and/or medical detox facilities throughout the state. Increase alcohol/drug treatment and after-care programs. Abolish the bail bond system and release people based on threat, not on their ability to pay. Increase community service for all offenders. Provide treatment that is based on research, not on what makes us feel good. Do everything we can to have strong community involvement in re-entry.
Let’s get smarter on crime.
Thomas Beauclair is retired deputy director of the National Institute of Correction and lives in Eagle.