You probably already know the jaw-dropping stats about American prisons: that the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. That we’re home to 5 percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of its prisoners. That more than one in every 10 American men has a felony conviction. That more than 60 percent of people released from prison are back again within three years.
“Prison is horrible for the prisoner and expensive for the state,” write Mark A.R. Kleiman, Angela Hawken and Ross Halperin over at Vox. It doesn’t have to be. Kleiman, Hawken and Halperin study criminal-justice policy, and they’ve recently proposed an innovative solution to help cut America’s incarcerated population, and ensure that those who are released don’t come back. It’s called “graduated re-entry.” The idea is to let convicts out of prison early — real early. Three-years-into-a-10-year-sentence-early.
But here’s the catch. Parolees wouldn’t simply be dumped on the street with 40 bucks in their pockets and no clear path toward re-entering society, the way they are now. “If someone needed to be locked up yesterday, he shouldn’t be completely at liberty today,” the researchers write. “And he shouldn’t be asked to go from utter dependency to total self-sufficiency in one flying leap.”
Rather, the prisoner would be released to an apartment subsidized by the state. At the beginning, he would be subject to strict monitoring. Curfews. Cameras. GPS bracelets. No visitors without permission. “A prison without bars,” they call it.
Living this way, under 24-hour surveillance and strict rules, wouldn’t be easy or pleasant by any means. It’s still a form of punishment. But good behavior would be incentivized with loosened restrictions. Keep your curfew for three months? Get it extended by an hour. Stay away from your old drug haunts? Get permission to travel more broadly. Break any of these rules, even once? The restrictions tighten.
Jurisdictions would have to decide which types of prisoners would be eligible for these programs. You could limit it to nonviolent offenders for a pilot program, but for it to be truly effective at cutting incarceration rates, you’d need to consider other criminals as well. “Solving mass incarceration requires releasing some seriously guilty and dangerous people,” according to the researchers. “The problem is how to do that while also protecting public safety by turning ex-criminals into productive, free citizens.”
Would this be expensive? Yes. But so is keeping people in jail. It costs about $2,600 per month to house, feed and care for a single prisoner in a typical facility. “The money you spend in the community is balanced by the money you’re not spending on a cell,” Kleiman and his colleagues write.
The prisoner would help pay his way by mandatory work at a minimally compensated public service job. He would have to search for a regular job as well. Once he’s able to find a regular-paying job, the cost to the state becomes much smaller. And his chances of landing that job — even if it’s just minimum wage — are much higher than they would be otherwise, because he’s already working.
The system might seem to be similar to the old-style halfway houses. Kleiman doesn’t see it that way. In an interview, he said “a halfway house is a facility. It’s staffed. It puts all the offenders together. Graduated re-entry people use their own apartments. They’re not all in the same building. You’re not putting all the offenders together. You’re not staffing a facility 24 hours a day.” All of this keeps costs down, and reduces risks of recidivism.
Christopher Ingraham writes about politics, drug policy and all things data. He previously worked at the Brookings Institution and the Pew Research Center.
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