Why putting people in prison might not be the best way to keep us safe.
I used to think the prison system was just a fact of life.
One of my relatives spent 10 years in prison when I was a kid, and I would visit him with my mom several times a year.
So as I grew up, I understood prison as just another place: You go to the grocery store when you need food, you go to church on Sundays, and you go to prison if you do something bad.
It wasn’t until I got older that I started really thinking about the criminal justice system.
And the more I thought about it, the weirder it sounded: When people commit crimes, we send them away from their families and communities to become better by locking them in cells.
Sometimes society’s most egregious myths are right in front of our faces.
But because they’re so integrated into our realities and systems, we don’t even notice them.
Here are some things that we’re learning along with the actual facts about what really keeps communities safe:
Myth 1: Higher incarceration rates cause corresponding decreases in crime.
Truth: Imprisoning people isn’t always a good way to fight crime.
A study by The Sentencing Project found that simply putting more people in prison isn’t an effective strategy for fighting crime.
In fact, states that imprisoned fewer people actually saw significant improvements in crime reduction compared with states who were more aggressive about incarceration.
In the words of the study’s authors, “Increasing incarceration while ignoring more effective approaches will impose a heavy burden upon courts, corrections and communities, while providing a marginal impact on crime.”
Myth 2: Downsizing prisons makes surrounding communities unsafe.
Truth: Research proves otherwise; just look at California.
In 2011, California decided to address prison overcrowding by shrinking the state’s prison population by 30%. Some people feared that downsizing prisons (basically, putting fewer people in jail) would cause a jump in crime rates, but that wasn’t the case. Researchers found that in 2012, 2013, and 2014, rates of violent crime and property crime stayed the same in California.
Myth 3: Prisons make communities safer by reforming criminals.
Truth: Recidivism rates (people returning to prisons) are high in the U.S., in part because prison doesn’t prepare people for life after their sentences.
In theory, prisons exist to rehabilitate people who commit crimes. But in practice, prisons don’t usually provide healthy rehabilitation programs. Plus, there aren’t enough resources for people who want to get a job, a home, and a stable life free of crime after they serve their sentence.
Myth 4: Even if prison isn’t an ideal solution, it’s the only solution we have to deal with crime.
Truth: There are a lot of alternatives to incarceration.
These other alternatives help prevent crime and are actually cheaper than prison, including drug courts, halfway houses, and restorative justice programs.
Particularly for drug-related crimes, there are so many alternatives to incarceration that actually improve the lives of offenders. Drug courts prioritize addiction treatment and accountability over punishment, and they actually save taxpayer money.
Incarceration doesn’t have to be the only option on the table when someone commits a crime.
Myth 5: Alternatives to prison aren’t worth the money.
Truth: Other solutions, like the above, are generally more cost-effective. They’re also healthier for offenders and their families.
A prison sentence doesn’t just affect the prisoner. Incarceration can be devastating for a whole family, both emotionally and financially. And the emotional strain prison puts on the children of incarcerated individuals can cause significant developmental delays as well.
60% of fathers and 39% of mothers in the U.S. hold full-time jobs, so losing that paycheck could push a family into poverty. In short, incarceration can cause lifelong harm for not just incarcerated people, but families of incarcerated people too.
As citizens, it’s our job to think about whether our criminal justice system is actually just!
Looking at the evidence is just the first step. But to actually achieve progress, we need better policies for mandatory minimum sentences, alternatives to incarceration, and reintegrating prisoners to the outside.
Let’s get to it.