By Ameya Gehi, University of Michigan Law School
Runner Up for the third annual law student writing competition.
About four out of five released American prisoners will become incarcerated in their future.1 Author Anthony J. D’Angelo has said, “When solving problems, dig at the roots instead of just hacking at the leaves.” This principle applies to dealing with recidivism in the United States. Root causes of recidivism include violent atmospheres in prisons and homes; lack of education and employment opportunities; unresolved mental health issues; substance abuse; poverty; poor societal relationships; and more.2 A more effective and humane way to minimize recidivism is to address these roots causes of repetitive criminal activity through treatment courts, reentry programs, and improvement in punishment institutions.
Treatment courts can help address the root causes of recidivism. Treatment courts are alternatives to prison and if individuals were successful in them, the court could reduce or dismiss their charges, and the individuals could avoid having a criminal record. If the individuals were not successful, they could face imprisonment. Some examples are substance abuse therapy and treatment; community service; home supervision; graffiti abatement; anger management courses; consequential-thinking classes; interventions for batterers; supportive services for ex- sex workers; and similar programs to reduce an individual’s need and potential drive behind their criminal activity.3
The obstacles of investing in more treatment courts are the cost; the U.S. sees prison as the norm; and courts are afraid to appear soft on crime. However, the average cost of incarcerating one federal inmate was $36,299.25 in 2017.4 This cost is even higher in some state prisons.5 The Bureau of Prisons and state prison agencies most likely would be better off in terms of cost and recidivism if they invested in such treatment courts, rather than resorting to the same, futile punishment of incarceration. Treatment courts can even save governments money.6
Nevertheless, regarding what is the norm, Americans are flexible and can change their mindset on how they view punishment. Prison reform is a movement that is building momentum every day, and thus some part of the population is not a political hindrance to investing more in treatment courts. Courts that order the successful completion of treatment court will not appear soft on crime, because treatment courts are analogous to suspended sentences in that individuals could be incarcerated if they were to fail to successfully complete the treatment courts.
The advantages of treatment courts include lower recidivism rates, higher employment rates, and less mental health/substance abuse problems. These benefits have further rewards, such as less incarceration costs, higher labor productivity and economic growth, and less medical conditions obstacles. Therefore, the advantages of treatment courts outweigh the disadvantages and can serve as an alternative to mass incarceration to minimize recidivism.
Reentry programs can be effective supplements to treatment courts to reduce recidivism. Reentry focuses on the process of successfully releasing prisoners back into their communities.7 They range from creative sentences imposed by a judge, such as probation and parole, which come with certain conditions and organized supervision. Also, reentry programs can take the form of mobilizing resources within a community, such as professional development, programs that provide mentorship, relationship training, substance abuse and mental health treatment, and enjoying social activities. An important example is restorative justice, where a previously convicted individual can make amends with the society by discussions and a meal, allowing the society to heal and accept a former criminal. Finally, each individual and punishment institution should work on reentry of day 1 of the punishment. For example, day 1 of incarceration should incorporate the vision of successful release, maintain healthy relationships, treating prisoners as humans, and address underlying criminal motives.
With reentry programs, former offenders gain opportunities to reenter their communities effectively and most importantly, while society welcomes them back. In this way, reentry programs can reduce recidivism by creating more involved citizens.
Lastly, improvements in the punishment system can reduce recidivism. First, in incarceration institutions, like jails and prisons, the prisoners should be treated as humans, with respect, because they will be released back into society. Perpetuating the treatment of prisoners as less worthy and the use of violence can make prisoners feel inferior and unsafe.8 Using coercive administrative mechanisms, such as responding to misconduct with segregation, physical force, restrictions of activities, hostility and aggression, increase idle time that results in more time for misconduct.9 Furthermore, coercive mechanisms can increase prisoners’ stress and violence, and foster feelings of unsafeness; these are common causes of criminal behavior, cultivating recidivism.10
On the other hand, remunerative controls, like employment opportunities, educational and vocational programs, can lead to socially desirable behaviors by giving prisoners structure and chances to be productive members of society.11 Also, remunerative controls can reduce stress and violence, giving prisoners “the possibility of walking a path different from the criminal one they had always known.”12
Second, jails and prisons should prioritize a thorough vetting process to ensure that only individuals who will respect prisoners and are interested in helping prisoners successfully reenter society are employees. This selective employment can help guarantee that prisoners are treated with respect, which will optimize the reentry process and avoid the objectionable effects of coercive mechanisms.
Overall, to reduce recidivism, mass incarceration is not the only choice. Treatment courts, reentry programs that begin early, and the commitment to treat prisoners with respect can help minimize recidivism more effectively and compassionately.
1 Jeremy Mosteller, What Makes a Reentry Program Successful?, CHARLES KOCH INSTITUTE (last accessed May 26, 2020), https://www.charleskochinstitute.org/issue-areas/criminal-justice-policing-reform/reentry-programs/; Summary, 2018 Update on Prisoner Recidivism: A 9-Year Follow-up Period, BUREAU OF JUSTICE STATISTICS (May 2018), https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/18upr9yfup0514_sum.pdf.
2 See, e.g., Kristen Bailey, The Causes of Recidivism in the Criminal Justice System and Why It Is Worth the Cost to Address Them, NASHVILLE B. J., Dec. 2006, at 6 (highlighting some of the causes of recidivism); EDWARD ZAMBLE & VERNON L. QUINSEY, THE CRIMINAL RECIDIVISM PROCESS 2 (2001).
3 Emily V. Galvin, How Treatment Courts Can Reduce Crime, THE ATLANTIC (Sept. 29, 2015), https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/09/how-treatment-courts-can-reduce-crime/407704/.
4Annual Determination of Average Cost of Incarceration, 83 Fed. Reg. 18863 (2018).
5 Prison Spending in 2015, VERA: INSTITUTE OF JUSTICE (last accessed May 26, 2020), https://www.vera.org/publications/price-of-prisons-2015-state-spending-trends/price-of-prisons-2015-state- spending-trends/price-of-prisons-2015-state-spending-trends-prison-spending.
6Emily V. Galvin, How Treatment Courts Can Reduce Crime, supra note 3.
7Jeremy Mosteller, What Makes a Reentry Program Successful?, supra note 1.
8 Rosemary Ricciardelli & Victoria Sit, Producing Social (Dis)Order in Prison: The Effects of Prisoner-on Prisoner Violence, 96 PRISON J. 210 (2016).
9Id. at 214.
10Id. at 227, 217, 221; Kristen Bailey, The Causes of Recidivism in the Criminal Justice System and Why It Is Worth the Cost to Address Them, supra note 2.
11Ricciardelli & Sit, Producing Social (Dis)Order in Prison: The Effects of Prisoner-on Prisoner Violence, supra note 7, at 213.
12 Id. at 224.