Reinventing Criminal Justice

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By David Farabee
Saturday, February 11, 2006

This week a House subcommittee held hearings on a bill, the Second Chance Act, which is meant to deal with the problems that prisoners encounter on their reentry into society and also with their need for substance abuse treatment.

The concern over prisoners and recidivism is justified. Though national crime rates declined steadily over the past decade, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that the percentage of released prisoners re-arrested within three years increased from 62.5 percent in 1983 to 67.5 percent in 1994. And given that offenders are arrested for only a fraction of the crimes they commit, even this depressing statistic is an underestimate. Few would dispute that the correctional system must be changed. But how?

If history is any indication, state and federal correctional systems will be pressured to emphasize rehabilitation over justice, the former being an umbrella term that includes everything from psychodrama, social skills training and art therapy to college coursework and drug abuse treatment. Some psychologists have pointed to a series of large treatment initiatives in the United States over the past few years as evidence that the "pendulum" is swinging from punishment to treatment. These initiatives include California's Proposition 36, under which adults convicted of nonviolent drug possession offenses can choose community drug treatment in lieu of incarceration, and even the eventual decision by Gen. Barry McCaffrey, when he was the White House anti-drug czar, to de-emphasize interdiction of drugs in favor of treatment.

Over the past several years, a large segment of the public seems to have warmed to the idea. According to a national survey commissioned by the American Civil Liberties Union in 2001, 40 percent of Americans believe that the primary purpose of prison should be rehabilitation rather than punishment, deterrence or maintaining public safety.

As noble as this preference may be, it is based on the common misconception that effective rehabilitation programs exist and merely need to be expanded. Unfortunately, the reality is that most of the state and federally funded interventions in use have never been evaluated, and the few rigorous assessments that have been published in journals of psychology and criminology show that these traditional rehabilitation programs have no lasting effect.

As a psychologist who studies offender interventions, I hope that, as lawmakers begin to survey the evidence to inform their decisions, they will give attention to the data showing that the more certain an offender is that he will be caught and (swiftly) punished for the next crime he commits, the less likely he is to follow through on that criminal act. In fact, the certainty and swiftness of being caught and penalized appear to be more important than the severity of the punishment.

A 2002 study from the National Bureau of Economic Research sought to assess the link between increased felony and misdemeanor arrests in New York City in the 1990s and the substantial drop in crime during that period. The authors found that for every increase of one percentage point in arrests for various offenses there were the following declines in that offense: murder -- 0.6 percent; assault -- 0.4 percent; burglary -- 3.1 percent; robbery -- 2.4 percent; and motor vehicle theft -- 5.9 percent. These findings held even after controlling for economic changes in New York over this period. The authors concluded that while both economic factors and deterrence are important in explaining the decline in crime in New York City, deterrence was more important.

The dramatic results seen in New York suggest that serious crime prevention can be achieved by increasing an offender's certainty that there will be negative consequences for committing criminal acts -- even low-level offenses. (In fact, a survey of arrestees in New York in the late 1990s showed that almost all were aware of the increased risks associated with committing a crime, and two-thirds cited increased police pressure as their reason for committing fewer crimes.)

It is an intervention of consequences and accountability rather than of social programs and therapy. And it may even be better suited as an approach to supervising known offenders (i.e., probationers and parolees) in the community than as a general crime prevention strategy.

Implementing effective reentry policies will require a shift in thinking and the resolve to make practical changes, such as reducing the size of probation and parole caseloads so that supervising officers can be effective monitors. Embracing new technologies could help -- for example, use of global positioning systems to enforce "exclusion areas," such as schools or the home or workplace of the parolee's victim, and requiring parolees to complete a three-year period of supervision without a single new offense.

Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), a sponsor of the Second Chance Act, correctly observed that the U.S. criminal justice system needs to be "reinvented." But there is nothing inventive about returning to the intuitively appealing programs that we correctly rejected 30 years ago. Tackling prisoner recidivism is a serious business requiring serious solutions, and it is unlikely to involve workbooks, videos or talk therapy.

The writer is a research psychologist at UCLA and author of "Rethinking Rehabilitation: Why Can't We Reform Our Criminals?"


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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