Why criminal justice reform is a smart investment for Americans

Many Americans don’t realize it, but the United States locks up more of its own citizens than any other country. Incarceration seems to be the tool most favored by the criminal justice system, politicians and everyday taxpayers.

But what is prison really for? Most people would say it has three purposes: punishment, public safety and rehabilitation. The first two goals seem to be met by the current system. But what about the third? Close to half of all convicted inmates commit new crimes after being released and are back in prison within three years. The high recidivism rate suggests that the current prison model is ineffective, particularly in light of the billions of taxpayer dollars spent on incarceration each year.

Is there a solution to this problem? Many reform advocates argue that there is. First of all, prison doesn’t necessarily make sense for many non-violent offenders convicted of things like drug crimes. Probation and other alternative sentencing options would save considerable amounts of money and would arguably be more proportional to the crimes committed.

The other solution is to focus on valuable programs offered in prison. Approximately 76 percent of prisons nationwide offer programs to help inmates earn a high school diploma or G.E.D. But in today’s job market a high school diploma doesn’t get you very far, especially if you also have a criminal record.

About one-third of U.S. prisons offer inmates the chance to earn college degrees. A program recently proposed by the governor of New York would have cost just $5,000 annually per inmate. This is a pittance compared to the $60,000 needed to incarcerate someone for a year.

Moreover, college degree programs are arguably a money-saving investment. Numerous studies have shown that inmates who earn college degrees in prison are 43 percent less likely to reoffend when they get out. Think of how much taxpayer money could be saved in the long run if more inmates were given the chance to earn college degrees.

More importantly, think of the human and societal benefits. Crime rates would likely go down, and those who would otherwise be branded as “career criminals” would have a better chance of shedding these labels and living a happy, productive life.

Prison reform and criminal justice reform are big ideas, to be sure. They are also controversial. But if we recognize that the current system isn’t really working, shouldn’t we be willing to try something new?

Source: The New York Times, “College for Criminals,” Bill Keller, April 9, 2014

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