Far better ways to fight crime than imprisonment

By Faye S. Taxman and Danielle S. Rudes

The Free Lance-Star

Published: Friday, April 6 2012 4:00 p.m. MDT

Efforts to improve primary and middle school education are part of a national effort to reduce criminal behavior — students who are successful in school are less likely to become criminals in later life. Prevention effort should be part of any crime control strategy and should replace our efforts at increasing law enforcement or prison beds.

We must look at options that restore our communities. The prevention of criminal behavior is more likely to occur in families and communities than in prison. Family interventions are effective for adults and youth, yet they are seldom provided in the justice system. Expanding family interventions is a win-win situation. Similarly, there is a need to provide treatments for criminal thinking, gang involvement, and other criminal subculture issues. These services are also rarely provided.

The mass incarceration era has expanded the criminalization of many inappropriate behaviors to reduce disorder in our communities. Typical "broken windows" offenses such as graffiti, public-nuisance offenses, etc., are mostly eligible for incarceration. These offenses could more effectively be dealt with using swift and certain punishments. Nearly 30 percent of individuals in the justice system could be handled by two punishments: day fines (providing financial penalties appropriate to one's income) and community service (providing labor to clean up, build, and contribute to safer, cleaner communities).

Both are underutilized. It is hard to believe that in the U.S. where capitalism is strong we do not use fines effectively. Take driving while intoxicated — the fines for first offenses are generally the same as those of the 1980s (around $300). Experiments in the 1990s found day fines a cost-effective tool for low-level offenses. Many first offenders could be handled using a stiff fine. Imagine if Martha Stewart had to pay a fine of $1 million (instead of her five-month prison sentence and $30,000 fine). What could communities struggling with tight budgets do with an extra million?

The same for Lindsay Lohan, who costs taxpayers hefty sums for her recycling through jail — whereas a fine of $1 million would pay the cost of providing Betty Ford-type drug treatment for 1,000 women with drug problems and would equally satisfy our demand to punish. A fine-intensive system provides a capacity to expand treatments for those who cannot afford it but are in the justice system, yielding long-term benefits for individuals and communities.

Similarly, building Habitat for Humanity houses, cleaning playgrounds and communities, cleaning rivers, and other efforts to remove disorder in communities are also strategies to repay society for the harms from criminal behavior. Fines and community service meet two of the criteria for scientific standards of deterrence: They are swift (can happen quickly) and they are certain (certain offenses can be lined up to result in these actions).

Use science, not rhetoric. Most current crime control and prevention policy does not follow scientific knowledge about effective ways to reduce crime and offending. The toolkit of what we can do in the community is endless. Science has defined crime prevention and control evidence-based practices, but few of these are in routine practice in today's correctional, probation, or treatment organizations. The Virginia Department of Corrections has a number of initiatives to use evidence to provide effective crime control (see www.gmuace.org or www.crimesolutions.org).

However, grim statistics of the mass incarceration era will continue unless the public, politicians, and communities recognize that incarceration should not be the preferred punishment. Ridding our communities of the maladies that breed crime must be a priority. If we recognize that prisons produce criminal behavior, then investing in community options should define our crime control strategy. Restoring community order is a goal that really matters.

Faye S. Taxman and Danielle S. Rudes are professors at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. They run the Center for Advancing Correctional Excellence. Distributed by MCT Information Services.

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