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Custody Vs. Treatment Debate: Addicted to Punishment

By David Fathi
U.S. program director, Human Rights Watch

American and Canadian societies are similar in many ways – people eat the same foods, watch the same movies, listen to the same music, and make many visits across the border. But these similarities conceal profound differences. For one, the U.S. incarceration rate is more than six times as high as Canada’s, and the United States has a homicide rate more than three times as high as its northern neighbor.

Those who argue that incarceration is the answer to our crime problems are hard-pressed to explain why Canada can incarcerate a much smaller proportion of its people and still have a substantially lower homicide rate. But we don’t need to cross the border to find evidence that crime doesn’t necessarily go down when incarceration goes up.

Louisiana’s incarceration rate is more than six times the rate in Maine. If incarceration worked as a crime control strategy, we’d expect Louisiana to have less crime than Maine.

In fact, just the opposite is true: You’re three times as likely to have your car stolen, five times as likely to be robbed, and almost nine times as likely to be a homicide victim in Louisiana as you would be in Maine. Wisconsin locks up twice as many people as Minnesota, but still has a 50 percent higher homicide rate than its neighbor to the west. There are many more comparisons like this, but the point is made: More incarceration doesn’t mean less crime.

It’s not a deterrent unless you think you’ll get caught

Of course this doesn’t mean that incarceration – or punishment more generally – is entirely irrelevant to crime control. To some extent, deterrence works – evidence confirms the common-sense proposition that people who believe a given behavior will lead to unpleasant consequences are less likely to engage in that behavior.

The vast majority of research, however, concludes that deterrence is primarily a function of the perceived likelihood of getting caught and receiving some punishment, not the severity of the punishment one will receive if caught. Put another way, you get more deterrence by increasing the certainty, rather than the severity, of punishment.

This makes intuitive sense. People who don’t believe they will be apprehended at all are unlikely to be thinking about the punishment they will receive if they are caught. And most criminals are not sufficiently familiar with the minutiae of sentencing law to have more than the vaguest idea whether their crime could get them six months of probation or ten years in prison.

Disregarding this body of research, though, U.S. sentencing policy for the last 20 years has focused largely on increasing the severity of punishment. Sometimes this has gone to absurd and inhumane lengths, such as California’s “three strikes” law, upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2003, which resulted in a sentence of 25 years to life for stealing three golf clubs, and a sentence of 50 years to life for shoplifting videotapes.
This “get tough” movement – mandatory minimum sentences, “three strikes” laws, abolition of parole – has given the United States the highest incarceration rate in the world, with more than 2.3 million people behind bars on any given day, and 1 in 11 convicted prisoners serving a life sentence.

There is little evidence that this bloated prison population – which costs about $60 billion annually to maintain – is making us any safer than the far lower incarceration rates found in Canada, the United Kingdom, and other Western democracies.

Getting smart on crime

It’s time to get smart on crime. Incarceration will always have a place in our criminal justice system, but for many offenders, prevention and treatment are far more effective – and much less expensive.

A 2006 study in Washington State concluded that many alternatives to incarceration – such as drug treatment, cognitive-behavioral therapy, and job training – effectively lowered crime rates, saving taxpayers thousands of dollars for every participant. Programs for juvenile offenders, like family therapy and aggression-replacement training, yielded even greater savings.

A study by the RAND Corporation concluded that every dollar spent on drug treatment for cocaine users yields savings of $7.46 in reduced crime and lost productivity. Many other studies have found similarly dramatic results from investments in treatment.

Last December, two state Supreme Court justices wrote to Barack Obama, then president-elect, urging "major change in state and federal sentencing practices" to reduce US reliance on incarceration. "At present," the justices concluded, "we use prisons as addicts use drugs.” Like any unhealthy dependence, our national addiction to incarceration will be tough to beat. But it’s the right thing – and the smart thing – to do.

Originally posted on Posted on with author's permission.

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