In today’s economy keeping people in prison is becoming an ugly, expensive mess. There are now so many alternatives to incarceration that we need to explore and start using. Johnny Cash wrote a song called “Folsom Prison Blues” describing the angst of inmates, permanently immortalizing them in the publics minds. However, now that prisons across the country are running out of resources and space, it is the prison officials who are feeling the blues.
There are a number of alternatives that are used for offenders who have committed non-violent crimes. The options can range from probation all the way to public shaming. For those who have been convicted of drunk driving, public shaming might have the most impact. In some states, convicted offenders will be made to drive around with signs put on their cars stating that they have been convicted. No one convicted of this sort of crime runs around announcing what they have done because its embarrassing. In general most prefer to keep it a secret because it is humiliating. With signs pasted to their vehicles, there is no way to escape the public knowing what they have done. Another option used for drunk driving is the use of a breathalyzer. This device is installed into the offenders car and the car is actually programmed not to start if they are intoxicated. This could put a definite damper on party habits.
Another alternative that has popped up is based out of Texas. Texas is one of the last few states that enforces the death penalty and also has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world. Ironically, a state with such an “iron fist” reputation, has started to put offenders on probation and sentence them to read as opposed to prison time. This trend has slowly started to spread across the United States. Offenders and repeat offenders are ordered to attend a specific reading group where they get into discussions over classics like “Of Mice and Men” and “To Kill A Mockingbird.” A study was done from 1997 to 2008 and it was discovered that
only 6% were either sent back to jail or had their probations revoked. Another perk of this program is that it only costs taxpayers $500 a year as opposed to the $30,000 a year it takes to keep an inmate imprisoned. This programs seems to work best for those who have been convicted of crimes involving robbery or drug abuse. It gives them a chance to have a voice and even a sense of identity and confidence.
Another tough crime to address as far as sentencing goes, is when a person is arrested and that individual is mentally ill. For the longest time when someone was arrested for drug possession, trespassing or any other non-violent offense, they were automatically sent to jail or probation, regardless of their mental instability. Now it seems, there is a new option of an alternative court type setting where attorneys, mental health organizations, and the judge work together to coordinate a treatment option that will ensure the offender will stay on the right path. So many people are incarcerated who have mental illnesses, yet have never had the opportunity to be officially diagnosed and continue to go untreated. Providing treatment is the right thing to do, it is humane, and is even more cost effective then incarceration.
Overall the criminal justice system needs to really start to change the way certain offenders are handled and then pretty much lost in the system. It effectively helps to create more and more offenders and even encourages repeat offenders. Financially for taxpayers it makes more sense. It is cheaper to provide outpatient options and treatments then to pay to keep an offender confined in prison. Aside from all of this, the criminal justice system needs to remember these low level offenders are still human beings. We all make mistakes and deserve to do the appropriate punishments, but a lot of these mistakes might just benefit more from appropriate treatment programs and interventions. Hard prison time is not always the best answer.
1) The Economist, July issue, 2010
3) American Psychological Association
4) The Guardian, July, 2010