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Books and Reports on Prison Reform

Unlocking America, JFA Associates (Nov. 2007), funded by The Rosenbaum Foundation and Open Society Institute (George Soros?). This is a report that synthesizes existing studies and data - it does not have new research. One of the foundations funding it is a George Soros foundation. He has made a conscious effort to fund liberal think tanks to counteract what he considers biased reports from conservative think tanks. I've read such conservative think tank reports, and they are indeed biased, choosing to use only facts that fit their thesis, and twisting the facts. Unfortunately, this report appears to do some of the same, although there appears to be a lot of good, correct information. The review below summarizes the article, with my reviewer comments in brackets.

This report concludes that prison terms in the US are too long, and with more appropriate sentences the prison population could be cut in half for an annual savings of $20 billion.

Prisons are described as self-fueling: about 2/3 of the 650,000 annual prison admissions are for probation or parole violations, and of those are for technical violations.

The US has both the largest prison population (more than much larger China) and the highest percentage of the population in prison. This is due to a huge growth boon since the 1970's. Statistics (since questioned) showing an increase in crime since the 60's, along with media sensationalism of heinous crimes, caused politicians to get tough on crime and extend prison sentences. The increased length of prison sentences is said to have been the main cause of the large rise in the prison population, not the number of crimes. Our prison sentences are now much longer than most Western nations.

The crime rate started a sharp increase in the 60s and continued to go up as the number of prisoners increased, until the crime rate started to decline in the early 90's. Yet the number of prisoners continued to go up. Thus, there is no correlation between increased numbers of prisoners and the crime rate. Instead, the crime rate appears related to other factors, such as the economy and the baby boomers passing through their prime crime years (most criminals are under 25). [When I read this I wondered if there was some contribution to the decreasing crime rate because of some delayed reaction - once a critical number of criminals were in prison, the rate started to decline. Also, the crime rate figures appear to be for violent crimes, while the number of prisoners includes those imprisoned under drug possession laws and other new crimes created since the 60's. Wouldn't a better comparison be the number of prisoners who committed violent crimes, and how this tracks this crime rate? Or is the point that imprisoning for drug possession has no effect on the violent crime rate?]

Putting people in prison for a long time is costly. The average burglar steals $1500, yet the cost of incarcerating him is $64,000. The average robber gets $1250, and we spend $113,000 incarcerating him.

The report notes that most Americans now demonize criminals, although it is common for people to violate some law, such as cheating on taxes, illegal downloading of music, using illegal drugs, driving while legally drunk, insider trading, etc. This demonization prevents people from voting against the constantly harsher punishments enacted by politicians.

They conclude that contradictory studies on the effect of imprisonment on the crime rate are inconclusive, and say the bulk of the evidence points to 3 conclusions: (1) the effect of imprisonment on crime rates, if any, is small, (2) if there is an effect, it diminishes as prison populations expand, and (3) the overwhelming and undisputed negative side effects of incarceration far outweigh its potential, unproven benefits.

They point to multiple studies showing a "tipping point." Further increases require imprisoning people with shorter criminal records, whose imprisonment won't reduce the crime rate.

Places that reduced the number of people in prison continued to have a falling crime rate (Connecticut, New Jersey, Ohio and Massachusetts). This shows that cutting the numbers in prison won't increase the crime rate. There are also negative effects of keeping people in prison - their kids are more likely to fail and become criminals, and the labor market is reduced.

The article debunks 3 myths:

  1. Career criminals can be identified and put away. They exist, but no one can predict which criminals will stop and which will go on. They note most crimes are committed by those under 25.
  2. Tough penalties are needed to protect against dangerous criminals. They seem to say 3 strikes type laws don't affect the crime rate because there are so few such repeat criminals. They point to homicide and rape recidivism rates [which are known to be types of crimes that are typically one-time crimes. One wonders what the numbers for assault and burglary are. Also, it doesn't seem to prove these laws don't work, just that the number of criminals in this category is so small as to be statistically insignificant.]
  3. Tougher penalties will deter criminals. They cite a study that shows tougher sentences don't have an effect on recidivism, and may have the opposite effect. It is not a deterrent because most criminals believe, correctly, that their odds of being caught and convicted are low. Certain types of crimes are deterred, but these are typically white collar crimes which do not have tough sentences - polluters, price fixers, slum lords, insider traders, etc. They suggest that community penalties (probation) are as effective [or as ineffective?] in discouraging a return to crime.

The book discusses studies on rehabilitation, concluding it is ineffective. It cites a study saying 42% of the rehabilitation programs reviewed had no impact on recidivism [meaning that 58% did have an impact?]

The report has some faults. The prologue says there are 650,000 prison admissions each year, while the body of the report says 730,000. The body also says 10 million "go to local jails," while the prologue says "750,000 are in local jails"

It says increased numbers of people in prison hasn't affected the crime rate, but this isn't clearly explained. Couldn't one look at the statistics and say there was a lag time - the number of criminals had in prison had t increase dramatically before there was an effect on the crime rate? Also, could the first part of the increase be due to new drug jail sentences being created, and the second part due to longer sentences? California introduced determinate sentencing in 1972, and 3 strikes in 1994 (just showed myself wrong)

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