FAIRFAX, Va. — For more than 30 years, the primary mechanism for crime fighting in the United States has focused on building and expanding the capacity of our prison systems — a phenomenon visible at federal, state and local government levels (with more cells and larger budgets). As scientists, we can spout endless grim statistics — the U.S. incarcerates more people per capita than any other country, including Russia and China; one in 23 American adults 18 to 65 years old is on probation or parole; one in 28 children has a parent behind bars; and a male born today is likely to be involved in the justice system at alarming rates, including one in three African-Americans, one in six Hispanics, and one in 13 Caucasians.
This translates into a runaway incarceration system that does not deter criminal behavior. Scientists have confirmed the themes of James Cagney movies that incarceration creates "schools for learning criminal behavior."
Single bullet, "get tough" policies have propelled the number of crimes that are eligible for incarceration, as well as increased sentence lengths. Crimes like driving on a suspended license, shoplifting goods worth $50, not paying speeding tickets or parking violations, or bouncing a check qualify for incarceration. While we think that incarceration with longer sentences is the simple solution, the overuse and reliance on prison and jail has reduced the effectiveness of it. Incarceration consumes resources that could be spent on schools, health care, parks, and roads. A more effective crime prevention policy would include:
More drug and alcohol treatment, including rarely used medications to reduce crime and its costs. Those involved in the justice systems have four times the problems with drug and alcohol abuse than most adults. Few get access to treatment. Both driving while intoxicated and various forms of possession or possession with intent to distribute illicit drugs remain the highest arrest categories — the system is full of people with drug and alcohol problems. The criminal justice system pays little attention to substance abusers.
The recession has resulted in fewer available substance-abuse treatment services than ever before: Fewer offenders on probation or parole can access these services. For example, Virginia has nearly extinguished the use of drug treatment courts, even though scientific studies continue to show that these courts are effective in reducing crime. Treatment is four times as effective as sanctions (prison), and sanctions often produce the opposite of the intended effect by actually increasing crime.
Additionally, we need to increase our use of effective treatments such as medications for opiate/heroin addicts or alcoholics. These are rarely used today. Medications for substance abusers (just like for high blood pressure, cardiac, and other chronic diseases) and therapeutic treatments yield better outcomes and have a greater likelihood of repairing brain functioning. Treating offenders will reduce prison and probation rolls by nearly 30 percent.
End the school-to-prison pipeline. Preventing high school dropouts — only 70 percent of those in high school graduate; in some places it is as low as 40 percent — will reduce crime and the long-term demand for prison beds.
We must focus our attention on children who do not read or write at grade level far long before high school — failure in school contributes to other life failures. The Children's Defense Fund reports that about eight of every 10 African-American and Hispanic fourth-graders and nearly six out of every 10 Caucasian fourth-graders cannot read at grade level. Within our juvenile justice system, there many youths face this and additional educational challenges. Nearly one-half (48 percent) of youth in the juvenile justice system do not read or have math capabilities at their grade level, and nearly one-third have learning disabilities.
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