The dividend of three decades of “getting tough on crime” is a decade of reductions in violent-crime rates. Incarcerating more criminals for longer periods has been an effective way to reduce crime. The price of maintaining the largest inmate population in the world is high, though, both for our communities and for our pocketbooks. It’s no longer enough to be tough on crime. We have to be smart on crime as well.
Fortunately, the venerable laboratory of ideas that is state government in America has found a more effective, less expensive way to allocate scarce resources. Last week, Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott, Virginia Democrat, and I introduced H.R. 2656, the Public Safety Enhancement Act — bipartisan legislation to create a new federal program modeled after successful programs in Texas, Oklahoma, Ohio, North Carolina and elsewhere. We have been joined by Rep. John Conyers Jr., Michigan Democrat; Rep. Howard Coble, North Carolina Republican; Rep. Hakeem S. Jeffries, New York Democrat; Rep. Tom Marino, Pennsylvania Republican; and Rep. Adam B. Schiff, California Democrat.
By implementing a post-sentencing risk-assessment system to identify an inmate’s risk of recidivism, we can target resources to those inmates who are most likely to be responsive to intervention. Then, using evidence-based practices developed by states, we can identify which correctional programs have the greatest impact on recidivism rates. This proposal would then provide incentives for inmates to participate in those programs.
Ultimately, this proposal credits inmates for time each month toward eligibility for an alternative custody arrangement such as a halfway house, or home confinement and ankle-bracelet monitoring.
The key to an effective alternative-custody program is strategically identifying which inmates will be successful. Unfortunately, former prisoners have high arrest rates after being released. One 1994 Justice Department study of nearly 300,000 state prisoners showed two-thirds were rearrested within three years. In California, where overcrowding has forced large-scale, court-ordered releases, the recidivism rate is an eye-popping 70 percent.
More recently, however, Texas found recidivism rates went down significantly for those who participated in certain rehabilitation programs. With more than 95 percent of federal inmates expected to get out of prison eventually, the corrections element of incarceration is a critical factor in the success of our prison system.
In the Texas model, data-driven evaluations determined that substance-abuse programs, faith-based programs, education and treatment programs and a violent-offender re-entry initiative reduced recidivism by varying degrees.
Under our federal proposal, prisoners who successfully complete proven recidivism-reduction programs and other activities — such as holding a prison job, participating in educational courses and delivering or participating in faith-based services — can earn time credits toward an alternative-custody arrangement. The risk assessments divide inmates into high-, moderate- or low-risk categories.
Those in lower-risk categories would earn more credits per month, but prisoners would be periodically re-evaluated and have the opportunity to progress to the low-risk category. Low-risk inmates earn up to 30 days of time credit per month, whereas moderate-risk inmates can earn up to 15 and high-risk can earn up to eight days.
Although alternative-custody arrangements must ultimately be reviewed and approved by the prison warden and judge, those who qualify for the program would be able to serve a meaningful portion of their sentence in a detention arrangement at a fraction of the cost of incarceration.
The ultimate goal of the bill is to reduce recidivism by incentivizing inmates to participate in activities and programs that help them prepare to reintegrate into society. The proposal has the very appealing side effect of reducing long-term prison costs.
Texas saved $340 million in annual operating costs by moving low-risk prisoners out of prison facilities. The process also resulted in savings of $1.5 billion on new prisons that no longer had to be built.
With a tenfold increase in the number of federal prisoners since 1980, the cost of warehousing so many people has ballooned to absorb 25 percent of the entire Department of Justice budget. The $34,000 annual price tag to house one inmate is reduced to $3,433 for an inmate in a halfway house or home confinement. The resulting savings can then be reinvested into further expansions of effective programs during the law’s five-year phase-in, after which savings could be used for other Justice Department priorities and debt reduction.
The history of federal prison reform is littered with failed proposals. While this bill doesn’t resolve sentencing controversies that have long simmered in Congress, it has sufficient bipartisan appeal to create a real and immediate solution to both the recidivism problem and the budget crunch in the federal prison system.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz is a Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Utah.
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