TCS Daily

The Problem with Prison

By Iain Murray - June 24, 2002 12:00 AM

There's a big problem with our prisons. After prisoners are released, more than two-thirds are arrested again within three years, and a quarter has gone back to jail. That, at least, is the conclusion of a new study released by the Justice Department, which looked at the behavior of prisoners released from state jails in 1994. If the figures suggest a crisis in the corrections system, however, it's not the one most commentators claim to have found.

Criminal justice pundits across the country quickly compared this new study to the last one the Justice Department conducted in 1983. That study found that 62 percent of released prisoners had re-offended within three years. Jumping to conclusions, the pundits claimed that the higher recidivism rate in the new study was evidence that "the increased number of criminals put behind bars has not been an effective deterrent to crime," as Fox Butterfield wrote on June 2 in his analysis for the New York Times.

This is a false comparison. Each study was merely a snapshot of released prisoners' behavior, and we have no idea whether 1983 was a good year and 1994 a bad year. We do not know whether prisoners released in the years between re-offended at the 1983 rate - indeed, 1994 could represent an improvement on 1989. In short, we cannot infer a trend out these two numbers.

Claiming that this dubious trend is evidence that prison policy has not deterred crime is even more of a leap away from the evidence. The number of serious violent crimes decreased from 3,455,000 in 1983 to 2,186,000 in 2000. Property crime has seen an even more precipitous decline (from 428 crimes per 1,000 households in 1983 to 178 in 2000). Over the same time period, however, the number of prisoners tripled to over 2.5 million. Most criminologists agree that the massive decrease in crime over the last decade is due at least in part to the 'incapacitation effect' of having so many criminals in jail.

Few other western countries have gone down this route. Britain, for example, has seen its crime rates explode to a degree where Britain is now more dangerous than the US in every major crime except murder (and even there the gap is narrowing). But where the rate of incarceration has been increasing in the US, it has been declining in Britain. A comparative study of the two systems by the Bureau of Justice Statistics and Cambridge University suggested that increasing the rate at which criminals are punished does have a significant deterrent effect on criminals.

The study does, however, point to one major problem within our prisons. "Corrections," by its very name, suggests that it should have altered the behavior of prisoners when they are released. The system is clearly failing to do that. Instead of rehabilitating prisoners, American prisons cultivate further barbarity. Vile crimes are commonplace and ignored by the staff. Eli Lehrer of the American Enterprise Institute has noted there is a prevalence of racist supremacist gangs in many institutions, while the pervasiveness of male rape in prison leads him to believe that there may be more rapes of men than of women in America. Many prisons are virtually run by the inmates, while, according to the ACLU, in one California prison, officers encouraged combat between rival prisoners and then shot them when they fought.

Our corrections system is failing in its duty to rehabilitate prisoners. This may be because too many politicians on both sides of the aisle view prison reform as being "soft on crime." This study shows that the reverse is true. Prisoners who are not rehabilitated commit crimes again almost as soon as they are released. It speaks volumes of the lack of progress in this area that recidivism levels are still the same as they were almost twenty years ago.

Failure to invest in prison reform is therefore the approach that is truly "soft on crime." This study shows that the final step in solving America's crime problem has not yet been taken. We catch our criminals, we convict them and we send them to jail, but we then do nothing until we let them out again. If we want to keep crime rates going down, the best thing we can do is to rehabilitate our prisoners and cut the recidivism rate.



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