NewYorkTimesFilter: Study Shows Building Prisons Did Not Prevent Repeat Crimes
June 2, 2002 10:28 PM   Subscribe

Study Shows Building Prisons Did Not Prevent Repeat Crimes
(New York Times link--you know the drill)
The rate at which inmates released from state prisons commit new crimes rose from 1983 to 1994, a time when the number of people behind bars doubled, according to a Justice Department study released yesterday.
The report found that 67 percent of inmates released from state prisons in 1994 committed at least one serious new crime within three years. That is 5 percent higher than among inmates released in 1983.
Criminologists generally agree that the prison-building binge of the last 25 years, in which the number of Americans incarcerated quadrupled to almost two million, has helped reduce the crime rate simply by keeping criminals off the streets. There has been more debate about whether longer sentences and the increase in the number of prisoners have also helped to deter people from committing crimes. The new report, some crime experts say, suggests that the answer is no. (More inside)
posted by y2karl (22 comments total)

 
"The main thing this report shows is that our experiment with building lots more prisons as a deterrent to crime has not worked," said Joan Petersilia, a professor of criminology at the University of California at Irvine and an expert on parole.

A likely reason for the increase in recidivism, Professor Petersilia said, is that state governments, to save money and to be seen as tough on crime, cut back on rehabilitation programs, like drug treatment, vocational education and classes to prepare prisoners for life at home.


We got tough in America: with 5% of the world's population, we now house 25% of the world's prisoners. When it comes to locking them up per capita: We're #1!

Our crime rate went down, sure, but so did Canada's and they didn't lock 'em up like we did. But at least we're #1!

Additionally, in regards to the "successful" three strikes law, you can find here at the Sentencing Project, a PDF file entitled Aging Behind Bars: "Three Strikes" Seven Years Later. Here is an excerpt from their summary:

The "three-strikes" law, the report shows, is rapidly expanding an aging and costly prison population—without the benefit of cutting violent crime, funnelling a growing share of resources to offenders who are moving beyond crime production age. Only 22% of arrests in the state are of offenders above age 39 and only 5% of arrests are above age 50. The study projects that by 2026, 30,000 offenders will be imprisoned for a third strike with 25-years-to-life sentences, costing $750 million per year. Fully 83% of them will be at least 40 years old.

California's considerable drop in crime between 1993 and 1999 (-41%) was, much like national crime reductions the study cites, based on a number of factors—an improved economy, declines in gang and drug activity, community policing, the aging of prime crime populations. No relationship, however, has been shown between crime rate drops and the use of "three-strikes" laws, the report states, citing numerous additional studies with the same conclusion. In fact, other jurisdictions have had similar crime rate declines without instituting "three-strikes": New York (-40.9%); Massachusetts (-33.3%); and Washington, D.C. (-31.4%).


Here are some examples of--your tax dollars at work!--the "success" in action in California:

• Scott Benscoter, now a three-striker, had two prior felony convictions for residential burglary when he was sentenced to 25 years to life for the theft of a pair of sneakers.

• Gregory Taylor, homeless, was sentenced to 25 years to life for trying to jimmy a church kitchen door for food.

• Arthur Gibson sentenced to 25 years to life for crack possession, had last been convicted of a violent offense in the 1960s.

An "expert" on crime and the corrections industry here at MetaFilter equated the phrase Prison-Industrial Complex to Faked Moon Landing.

Here, from the Atlantic Magazine, December 1998 is Eric Schlosser's original article The Prison-Industrial Complex.

You be the judge-Faked Moon Landing or Food For Thought?

Not that any sensible person would ever assert that the present criminal justice system involves any profit motive, heavens, no!

But perhaps we should ask What would make prisons work?
posted by y2karl at 10:30 PM on June 2, 2002


Perhaps we should let prisoners out earlier and just make their names and crimes available to all their neighbors. That'll stop em!!
posted by dogmatic at 2:24 AM on June 3, 2002


If the US stopped imprisonment for drug possession and made drug sales cheap, legal, and taxed, many problems related to crime and punishment would be solved very quickly. Some problems might get worse, but overall the changes would be for the better.
posted by pracowity at 3:22 AM on June 3, 2002


Don't forget that attendance at prison is, for the most part, voluntary. Many people are jailed and even executed by mistake. But their number is miniscule. Most prisoners have been jailed because they chose to commit a crime. They knew the consequences. Nobody is forced to use illegal drugs. Millions upon millions of people go through their whole lives without using illegal drugs. Of course drugs should be decriminalized. But until they are, you have no one to blame but your self if you are arrested for using them and thrown into jail. Do you remember the movie "Runaway Train" with Jon Voight? He gives a memorable speech in the film. Voight is an escaped prisoner, and the alpha male on the runaway train with two younger criminals. As the train hurtles toward destruction, he advises them to go straight. He suggests that they get a job pushing a broom, if necessary. To eat all the s***t their boss gives them. And to thank heaven every day of their lives that they have not chosen the criminal path. The answer to the prison problem is: Be straight. Be very straight.
posted by Faze at 6:44 AM on June 3, 2002


If there is going to be no repeal of the drug laws, at least in the short term, the criminal justice system needs to be dealing with non violent drug users in a much different manner. Housing them with violent criminals is clearly not the right thing to do (unless you want the drug users to become career criminals themselves). Rehab and restitution (community service and fines) would be a much more suitable alternative for dealing with convicted, non-violent drug users. But the prison lobby would have none of that, we need to be tough in the War on Drugs.

Don't forget that attendance at prison is, for the most part, voluntary.

That doesn't make any sense. The whole idea of a prison is holding someone against their will. No one chose to go to prison when they chose to commit a crime. They may or may not have known the risk involved with their activities.
posted by insomnyuk at 7:28 AM on June 3, 2002


Many people are jailed and even executed by mistake. But their number is miniscule.

So is it many or miniscule? Please decide before you trumpet your ignorance to the world.
posted by solistrato at 7:49 AM on June 3, 2002


How about this: Miniscule by comparison to those who are there for legitimate crimes.
posted by Faze at 7:51 AM on June 3, 2002


From Erci Shcolooser's The Prison Industrial Complex:

Christopher Stone, the head of New York's Vera Institute of Justice, believes that prisons can be "factories for crime." The average inmate in the United States spends only two years in prison. What happens during that time behind bars may affect how he or she will behave upon release. The lesson being taught in most American prisons -- where violence, extortion, and rape have long been routine -- is that the strong will always rule the weak. Inmates who display the slightest hint of vulnerability quickly become prey...

America's prisons now serve as networking and recruiting centers for gang members. The differences between street gangs and prison gangs have become less distinct. The leaders of prison gangs increasingly direct illegal activity both inside and outside...

Many of the customs, slang, and tattoos long associated with prison gangs have become fashionable among young people. In cities throughout America, the culture of the prisons is rapidly becoming the culture of the streets.


We're all hot to build prisons and punish criminals: take away their weights, TVs, vocational classes and give them nothing to do--raising the risk for violence in prisons in the process--but the point of the article is that after they serve their time, prisoners get out. That nothing is done to prepare them for re-entry back in our world, give them an alternative to a life of crime is a crime in itself. Which was the point of the study and the quote from it there at the top of my comment. That is the issue here for me.
posted by y2karl at 8:05 AM on June 3, 2002


y2karl, "The alternative to a life of crime" is staring them right in the face their whole lives. It is to get a job, work hard, keep your nose clean, and be courteous. It's no big secret. Maybe criminals like prison. Maybe a world where "where violence, extortion, and rape" are "routine," where the "strong will always rule the weak" is their dream world. Maybe their lives are so disorderly, or they are so stupid, that the an order based upon the crudest sort of violence and strength is the only order they can recognize or feel comfortable with. Since it is really pretty easy to make a living in America and lead a decent life, maybe the reason criminals commit crimes it that they want to be captured, go to prison, and escape the confusing disorder of the outside world. How else do you explain recidivism?
posted by Faze at 8:51 AM on June 3, 2002


i was just thinking if you treat people like criminals, then they will tend to think like criminals. not that that excuses crime, but it is something to think about! i think :)
posted by kliuless at 9:01 AM on June 3, 2002


Faze: I think that many people who commit crimes don't see that they have another option. If they've never had examples (like role models) to learn from, how are they supposed to know how to "get a job, work hard, keep their noses clean and be courteous"? I think many of them just don't have the skills or knowledge necessary to lead a crime-free life. And I also think that people who've been treated badly by others for most/all of their lives (like many/most repeat offenders) are unlikely to know how to treat others well, or to even understand that there is another way to behave. I think recidivism is more likely explained by the lack of rehabilitation programs in prisons rather than the kind of choice you imply the criminals made. The world might be a lot less confusing if they'd had the chance to learn how to make their way in it honestly at some point (rather than learning new ways to jimmy locks or whatever, like they do in prison).
posted by biscotti at 9:21 AM on June 3, 2002


I dunno, biscotti. In our media-saturated world, it's difficult to believe that anyone, however debased their personal environment may be, cannot follow the abundant clues society leaves to indicate the route to a peaceful and prosperous life. I suspect that the growth of our prison system is consumer-driven, and that the consumer is not the state, but the criminal. Prisons are built to meet the huge and growing demand by a sector of the population which prefers to live in a crude, authoritarian environment, rather than face the difficult outside world of choices and responsibilities.
posted by Faze at 10:03 AM on June 3, 2002


Prisons are built to meet the huge and growing demand by a sector of the population which prefers to live in a crude, authoritarian environment, rather than face the difficult outside world of choices and responsibilities.

...and that would be the american public, as lead by short sighted politicians who wish to appear tough on crime, without actually addressing the issue.
posted by inpHilltr8r at 10:23 AM on June 3, 2002


Prisons are built to meet the huge and growing demand by a sector of the population which prefers to live in a crude, authoritarian environment, rather than face the difficult outside world of choices and responsibilities.

Alternatively, prisons are built to meet the huge and growing demand by a sector of the population which prefers to shove casual drug users into a crude authoritarian environment, rather than face the difficult outside world of other peoples' choices and responsibilities.

Really, Faze, this is ridiculous armchair psychologizing at best. Criminals want to go to prison? That's why they welcome the cops with open arms all the time, right?
posted by Skot at 10:26 AM on June 3, 2002


I hear ya, Faze, I just don't see that those abundant clues are really all that practical at the most basic level, and I suspect that the most debased among us don't really live in a world where what the media says is at all relevant (if you're starving, all you can think about is where your next meal is coming from, you don't think about how to get a spiffy resume together so you can earn a living like those folks on Friends do, you probably don't even know what a resume is, nor do you have the mental resources available to care). I don't disagree with you about the end result (that many criminals are in prison in order to avoid the difficult outside world), but I don't think so many of them would be making that choice if we'd equip them with some real-world skills while they were doing time. And what kliuless, inpHilltr8r and Skot said (not about the armchair psychology, but about the casual drug users).
posted by biscotti at 10:38 AM on June 3, 2002


Really, Faze, this is ridiculous armchair psychologizing at best. Criminals want to go to prison? That's why they welcome the cops with open arms all the time, right?

Generally, I agree with you skot, but I'm sure there are cases where for men with no life skills, prison is like a form of welfare, or a way to be taken care of. I can't imagine living in prison for 30 years, having the state direct my every move, and then have to go back into society and start making every decision for myself. It must certainly be difficult, and I'm sure some people will commit a crime just to go back.
posted by insomnyuk at 10:48 AM on June 3, 2002


Faze: Maybe criminals like prison. Maybe a world where "where violence, extortion, and rape" are "routine," where the "strong will always rule the weak" is their dream world.

Maybe they don't know any other world. Maybe they were born into it, and didn't know how to escape. Maybe the tyrants and power hungry lunatics that created that world are responsible for it, not the poor schlub who steals $50 so he can score some crack and escape the torture that is his everyday life for a few minutes.

How about, for example, instead of locking someone up for buying drugs, you figure out why he's buying drugs and fix that? If you figure out the context of the behavior, maybe you can fix the circumstances that cause the behavior, instead of punishing people for doing things that, while they are wrong, may still seem like a reasonable response to the circumstances.

Since it is really pretty easy to make a living in America and lead a decent life, maybe the reason criminals commit crimes it that they want to be captured, go to prison, and escape the confusing disorder of the outside world.

Based on the tone and content of your comments, I'm guessing you're a white male, middle or upper-middle class, with a job, a car, possibly (if you're old enough) a wife and kids, and maybe a mortgage, who has never had to deal with poverty, hunger, or crime except by watching it on TV (unless you're a troll, and I'm wasting my time). You are therefore completely insulated from and utterly clueless about how bad things are for some people in this country. Otherwise you wouldn't make seemingly-logical yet completely asinine statements like that.
posted by RylandDotNet at 11:30 AM on June 3, 2002


Bah. All commentary aside, the issue boils down to one thing: Follow the Money.
posted by five fresh fish at 11:48 AM on June 3, 2002


Something different: some prisons have been experimenting with meditation programs for inmates, modeled after similar programs in India.
posted by homunculus at 12:27 PM on June 3, 2002


studies show studies are lame.

"dude, they did a study thats how i know"

the elusive THEY...
posted by Satapher at 5:25 PM on June 3, 2002


Faze, when I got mugged, my question was Why was it a black kid who did it? I mentioned this to a friend at work and he said read America Now aka Why Nothing Works by Marvin Harris--I strongly recommend you read the book. It's rather old, written before Reagan's election and updated during his second term but it's still relevant.

Harris is the founder of the anthropological school of Cultural Materialism-- a pertinent quote from the first link above:

Infrastructural determinism -"human beings must expend energy to obtain energy (and other life-sustaining products.) And like all bioforms, our ability to produce children is greater than our ability to obtain energy for them." Cultural materialism is opposed to theories that say that thoughts and words have more influence on culture than the physical realities of existence.

(my emphasis there)


In Chapter 7, Why There's Terror on the Streets--his analysis of the crimes of burglary and robbery, especially robbery, is that it's an economically driven crime. There are no unskilled labor jobs anymore and, since no one can raise a family on one income anymore, the labor pool for the various service industries and low end office work is women, mostly white women, for a variety of reasons of which I don't think I need to draw you a picture.

(His argument of why two incomes are needed where one sufficed before, by the way, is that the American economy is dominated by oligolopolies. When you have two or three companies dominating a given industry or manufacturing sector, you get de facto price fixing, so living expenses rose after the 60s as the oligolopolistic trend increased. It always tickles me that most free market ideologues defend oligolopolies and monopolies--where's the free market in that?)

Anyway, his explanation of the disproportionate to the population percentage of blacks in the crimes of robbery and, to a lesser extent, burglaries--murder and rape tend to be white on white, black on black and so on--is It's a job, stupid.--not his words but that's the idea. Look at the unemployment rates for young black males in urban centers: they approach those of third world countries, even in boom times. And he cites a number of quotes by robbers and muggers referring to their crimes as Getting paid. It's not about good vs. evil, it's about money.

I over-simplify his arguments--you really should read the book--but that's the idea. I repeat, Cultural materialism is opposed to theories that say that thoughts and words have more influence on culture than the physical realities of existence.

Your moralizing is utter crapola, as those above in this thread point out, and ideological explanations are so much hot air. Recidivism rates, by the way, were way down for those prisoners lucky enough, before the current Get Tough policies took hold, to get educations while in prison. But people kicked about prisoners getting Pell grants and so forth and so we ended up with the Stick It To Them approach of locking them up--the Sentencing Project link noted that after mandatory minimum sentences and three strikes laws took hold in California, the average parole officers caseload rose from 10 to 20 to over 3,000. Packing the prisons means larger numbers of prisoners released, and since no one spends the money on supervising them, let alone training them to hold jobs, they re-offend faster. Duh...

What's so hard to understand about, and I quote again,

A likely reason for the increase in recidivism... is that state governments, to save money and to be seen as tough on crime, cut back on rehabilitation programs, like drug treatment, vocational education and classes to prepare prisoners for life at home?

This black-and-white, either/or, good-and-evil moralizing is stinkin' thinkin', pal: if it costs the tax paying public less to give prisoners the skills to be gainfully employed after serving their sentences--and studies have borne out that prisoners who got educations and job training re-offend at a much much lower rate--than it does to warehouse them,what is so hard to understand about that?

You act like you think the prison culture that's poisoning the the culture at large is a given, carved in stone, unchangeable--that it should be that way. Your moralizing is simply repeating your opinions as if they were facts, which they are not. But, thought wise, it's energy efficient, I guess: pat answers don't involve any intellectual heavy lifting.
posted by y2karl at 4:47 PM on June 4, 2002


robotwisdom linked to this article about balanced and restorative justice that i think is really applicable.
posted by kliuless at 5:32 PM on June 4, 2002


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