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.
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.