Criminal-justice reform advocates claim that prison is a failure—that it doesn’t reduce or deter crime and that it presents a host of ethical challenges as well. Some argue the case on moral grounds, examining the racial and class demographics of the prison population; others point to overcrowding, institutional violence, and deteriorating conditions within prisons; and still others complain about the exorbitant expense of prisons, which cost over $80 billion nationwide each year. The assumption of prison failure drives reformers’ push for shorter sentences, expanded early release and parole, and alternatives to incarceration.
The problem for reformers is that this assumption is deeply flawed, and many of their policy priorities require considerable obfuscation of criminal-justice data. For example, while the National Institute of Justice, the research arm of the U.S. Department of Justice, claims that “prison sentences (particularly long sentences) are unlikely to deter future crime,” another arm of the DOJ, the Bureau of Justice Statistics, disagrees. In an analysis of prisoners released in 2012 from 34 states who were rearrested within five years, BJS found that those who served longer sentences for the same types of crimes were rearrested at lower rates than those who served shorter sentences. The difference was greater than 8 percentage points, representing tens of thousands of fewer crimes committed.
Many reform advocates dispute the theory that steeper punishments deter future crimes. While it is true that most research shows that long prison sentences do not prevent new criminals from committing crimes, that finding does not apply to criminals who have gone to prison already. The empirical reality is that people who served longer sentences in every category of crime re-offend at considerably lower rates than those serving shorter sentences. For violent offenders, the differential between re-offense rates are staggering: shorter-sentence offenders are 28 percent more likely to get rearrested than longer-sentence offenders.
Why do longer sentences have such an effect? A key reason is that age is inversely correlated with crime: older people commit less crime than younger people. Longer-sentence offenders are more likely to leave prison at an older age than are shorter-sentence offenders. The connection between longer sentences and lower re-offense rates presents a steep obstacle for reform advocates. The data contradict the advocates’ assurances that expanded parole and early-release programs, as well as shorter sentences in general, will not undermine public safety.
Rather than pushing dangerous policies, reformers could more productively focus their efforts on improving rehabilitation within prisons. For example, meta-studies have shown that cognitive behavioral therapy programs, which help criminals develop strategies to counter antisocial decision-making, are effective at reducing future crime among participants. Facilities such as Maine State Prison have seen success in terms of both desistance from crime and employment outcomes from their robust vocational programs, which include woodworking, metalworking, and upholstery shops. Advocating for more effective and accountable prison-based rehabilitation makes much more sense than simply curbing the use of prison without accounting for its effect on crime.
The preponderance of data exposes the flaws in conventional reform priorities and suggests a more sensible, politically achievable, and empirically sound goal: making prisons better at achieving their intended purpose of “correcting” individuals—even if that means that prisoners must take the longer way home.
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