Friday, February 29, 2008

Land of the Free Jailed

More than one in 100 adults in the United States is in jail or prison, an all-time high that is costing state governments nearly $50 billion a year and the federal government $5 billion more, according to a report released yesterday.

With more than 2.3 million people behind bars, the United States leads the world in both the number and percentage of residents it incarcerates, leaving far-more-populous China a distant second, according to a study by the nonpartisan Pew Center on the States.
Yikes! That is crazy that more than 1% of American adults are in prison. And for young black men it is a magnitude of order higher:
One in nine black men ages 20 to 34 is behind bars.
What can be done to lower this rate?
"There is no question that putting violent and chronic offenders behind bars lowers the crime rate and provides punishment that is well deserved," said Gelb, who as director of the Center's Public Safety Performance Project advises states on developing alternatives to incarceration. "On the other hand, there are large numbers of people behind bars who could be supervised in the community safely and effectively at a much lower cost -- while also paying taxes, paying restitution to their victims and paying child support."

Many state systems also send offenders back to prison for technical violations of their parole or probation, such as failing a drug test or missing an appointment with a supervisory officer. A 2005 study of California's system, for example, found that more than two-thirds of parolees were being returned to prison within three years of release, 40 percent for technical infractions.

In addition, when it comes to preventing repeat offenses by nonviolent criminals -- who make up about half of the incarcerated population -- less-expensive punishments such as community supervision, electronic monitoring and mandatory drug counseling might prove as much or more effective than jail.

"The idea is to make a distinction between the people we're afraid of and the ones we're just ticked off at," said Rick Kern, director of the Virginia Criminal Sentencing Commission. "Not that you shouldn't punish them. But if it's going to cost $27,500 a year to keep them locked up, then maybe we should be smarter about how we do it."
I don't want my tax dollars being spent to incarcerate individuals at $27,500 a year if crime rates can be kept low using cheaper options.

The other issue with locking all of these people up, is that 90% of them will eventually be released. In 2006, 650,000 individuals were released from jail. To put this in perspective this is about 1/2 of the number of people who graduate college each year. How do you reincorporate that many people back into every day life?

via The Washington Post


al fin said...

Criminality is a state of mind. Some criminals are amenable to changing their minds, some are not. Some criminals are simply not aware of the alternatives. Most criminals could not care less about the alternatives, they like the "thrill" of crime, and the sense of not being a victim this time.

Change the criminals' minds and you change the statistics of crime. If you are smart enough, you can do it.

But it's easier to be an activist and blame society or racism or something abstract like that. Righteous indignation in an invalid cause can still make a person feel good.

Fat Knowledge said...

Change the criminals' minds and you change the statistics of crime. If you are smart enough, you can do it.

Any suggestions on how to do that or on how to lower the costs of the justice system while keeping crime rates low?

Paradigm said...

Al: This reminds me of the latest episode of "Breaking Bad" where Jesse is offered a work wearing a full body advertising costume. Rather than being laughed at he gets back in the meth business.

I guess your idea is to change his mind so that he enjoys being laughed at.

It's true that some criminals are in it for the thrill but most only want respect.

Al Fin said...

Paradigm: That would be a rather narrow notion of "changing Jesse's mind" but I suppose you are right that it would be one way.

In fact, the sociopathic mind does not feel the pain of his victim. Finding a way to change the sociopathic mind into an empathic mind might affect crime statistics.

You may be thinking in terms of "A Clockwork Orange", but neuroscience has come a long way since Burgess wrote his disturbing novel.

FK: You may remember Delgado's experiment with the charging bull? I have more experience with neurofeedback than with brain nano-array electrodes. The goal is safety, reproducibility, and reversibility.

Likewise my training is more in applied neuropharmacology than in deep brain electromagnetic stimulation, however I can suggest a detailed experimental approach to doing exactly what I think needs to be done.

Paradigm said...

Doesn't really matter wether you use fancy equipment or not. It's still a scary idea. And where do you draw the line? People with ADHD are higly impulsive and clearly overrepresentated in crime statistics - should they also be treated?

Audacious Epigone said...

When Hispanic and black pathology rates are assumed to be equal to those of NH whites in the US, we fall in line with the rest of the developed world in terms of criminality. Demographic realities necessitate the relatively large American prison population. Expect to see European rates climbing in the future, as the 'troubled youth' contingent continues to grow.

Fat Knowledge said...


From a technology standpoint, I would love to see what you are talking about and see how well it works. But, I am with paradigm that it practice I don't think this is the kind of power I would like to entrust the government with.

On a somewhat related point, I have seen that transcendental meditation has been used successfully in prisons to reduce recidivism. Biologically this might have a similar effect in the brain to what you are proposing.


That might be true, but I believe that we can keep a similar crime rate and greatly reduce the number in jail if we are smart about how we do it. From the article:
For instance, Florida, which has almost doubled its prison population over the past 15 years, has experienced a smaller drop in crime than New York, which, after a brief increase, has reduced its number of inmates to below the 1993 level.

I think it is possible to replicate New York's experience nationwide.

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