Alternatives to Incarceration

Note: This commentary was delivered by PFM President Mark Earley.

Even before the recent financial crisis, states across the country were under budgetary pressures. Severe ones. For instance, my home state of Virginia is facing a $2.5 billion shortfall over the next two years.

Virginia and other states are looking for ways to save money while still keeping faith with their residents. Well, the federal government might be on to something, believe it or not, that states should consider in these tough times: alternatives to our costly and non-working prisons.

According to the Washington Post, the U.S. Sentencing Commission is “considering alternatives to prison for some offenders.” These alternatives might include things such as “treatment programs for nonviolent drug users and employment training for minor parole violators.”

Why is considering these alternatives so important? It’s because of the explosive growth in the U.S. prison system.

How explosive? This year, approximately as many people — 700,000 — will be released from prison as were in prison only 20 years ago. Our prisons and jails hold approximately 2.3 million people behind bars, at an estimated cost to you and me of $55 billion a year — that’s $24,000 an inmate just for operating costs.

Over the past 20 years, while spending on education has risen 21 percent, spending on corrections has increased by 127 percent.

And what do taxpayers get for their billions? Certainly not men and women prepared for life on the outside of prison: 50 percent of those released are back within three years.

While many of those behind bars belong there — and belong there for a long time — many others can be punished, supervised, and even rehabilitated at far less cost to the taxpayer.

Forbes magazine has suggested 10 such alternatives. They included drug treatment, house arrest, intensive probation, making corporate criminals teach in schools, and even faith-based programs like the InnerChange Freedom Initiative that was launched by Prison Fellowship 12 years ago.

The list is by no means to be exhaustive and isn’t meant to be. But it’s an example of what is possible if we’re willing to be creative and rethink our assumptions about criminal justice.

One of those assumptions is that because offenders are “out of sight,” they should be “out of mind.” But even if we don’t care about them, we should care about what happens inside our prisons because nearly all of them will eventually be released.

Of course, Christians don’t have the option of not caring. Not only because Jesus calls prisoners His brothers, but also because we are called to promote what the Bible calls shalom — a peace and justice that heals the injury caused by crime.

Identifying with prisoners and promoting shalom are why Prison Fellowship exists. It’s why Chuck Colson founded it 32 years ago. It’s why, when almost everyone else was saying “lock them up and throw away the key,” we urged our leaders to be smart, as well as tough.

Now, there’s a new openness to being smart. Our leaders may finally understand that doing the right thing is less costly in the long run-and better for public safety.

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  • I simply don’t understand why any prison should cost taxpayers one thin dime. Maybe it’s a simplistic viewpoint, but it seems to me that a prison is a “captive” source of manpower, with enough potential “employees” to produce enough to at least sustain their own facility – perhaps even generating a profit. This would also teach the “employees” actual SKILLS that they could use in the public sector when eventually released. It would also reduce prison violence by giving these people something to do, to accomplish, rather than bashing each others’ brains out. I’ve heard arguments that this method would have a negative impact on the economy, but I cannot believe that it would be enough to offset the myriad of positive results that productivity brings.

  • Warren Jewell

    CrisDee, you are on to one fine program.

    We could train for useful trade jobs with levels of the income spread in
    – a gradually decreasing level for the upkeep of prisoners, and
    – an gradually increasing share given
    – – first to any dependents of the prisoner, and
    – – an increasing level of real pay
    – – – adding in part to dependent support,
    – – – in part up to 25% going into his pocket and
    – – – the remaining 75+% of his part into savings toward his release.

    How this would work for any prisoner would be based on any abiliy he brings into his incarceration with him and how long his incarceration term will be. His attitude toward cooperating in this program could go toward ‘merit’ pay increases as well as his productivity at his work. Perhaps, he could earn performance bonuses to go into his savings. Any overtime pay could be more at his discretion for sharing.

    Perhaps, too, the prisoner could ‘earn’ early parole or release based on some employer willing to take him/her on into a full-time job.

  • jmtfh

    WOW! 2.3 million behind bars. I once lived in a northern Great Plains state where the whole population of the state was only 650,000!