An Alternative to Incarceration for Nonviolent Offenders Essay
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Community corrections is a range of alternative punishments for nonviolent offenders. There are two basic community corrections models in the United States. In the first model, integrated community corrections programs combine sentencing guidelines and judicial discretion with a variety of alternative sanctions and parole and probation options. In the second model, some states have instituted programs in which correctional officials may direct already sentenced offenders into alternative sanction programs and parole and probation options.
Both models are designed to help reduce prison overcrowding and are less expensive alternatives to prison.
Widespread development of community correction programs in the United States began in the late 1970’s as a way to offer offenders, especially those leaving jail or prison, residential services in halfway houses. The first state community correction programs began in Oregon, Colorado, and Minnesota as pilot projects with very little government-funded support.
They diverted nonviolent offenders in selected pilot project areas from jails and state prisons into local alternative punishment programs.
These programs allowed judges to sentence offenders to a community-based punishment rather than jail or prison. Rehabilitation programs were the preferred punishment option. In the late 1980’s, prison systems across the country began experiencing serious overcrowding of facilities. The overcrowding served as a catalyst for lawmakers to develop new options for sentencing criminal offenders. Nineteen states have now enacted various community correction programs.
Community correction programs provide many communities with local punishment options as an alternative to prison or jail. These sanction programs are lower cost alternatives to increased prison and jail construction, based on the cost per offender. They provide local courts, state departments of corrections, and state parole boards with a broad range of correctional options for offenders under their jurisdiction. The goal is to match the appropriate punishment with the crime. Community corrections programs are integrated sanctioning strategies which seek to achieve the following goals: •The offender is punished and held accountable.
•Public safety is protected.
•Victims and local communities receive restitution from felons who work in their present jobs and/or in restitution programs. •Community service work increases.
•Collection of court costs and fees increases due to contractual agreements with offenders who remain in their present jobs. Eight states have adopted comprehensive Community Correction Acts which create a network of correctional programs for specific types of offenders.
The acts create mechanisms by which state funds are granted to local governments and community agencies to encourage local sanctions in lieu of prison or jail. While no two state programs are alike, a comprehensive community corrections program generally includes the following elements: •A locally integrated criminal justice system which supports a network of decentralized or centralized correctional programs for specific types of offenders. For instance, in Minnesota, local community corrections advisory boards composed of county sheriffs, chiefs of police, prosecutors, judges, defense lawyers, probation agents, and other local officials create comprehensive correction plans to improve the administration of justice at the local level.
The plans detail the various options of punishment in the community which are available to judges and other criminal justice officials when sentencing offenders. •These integrated systems generally include restitution programs for nonviolent offenders. Offenders’ wages are applied directly to restitution, court-ordered fines and fees, and room and board. Placement in the work programs usually lasts from three to six months. •Programs are administered by local governmental or nonprofit agencies at the county or regional level, and are funded by the state under a single system which provides for local punishment options.
Funds are provided contractually or directly depending on the involvement of nonprofit agencies. •Sentencing guidelines for local, district, or regional judges prescribe a uniform sentencing structure with a variety of punishment options for offenders. They differ from determinate sentencing by targeting alternative punishments for the non-violent offender population.
•The punishment authorized under sentencing guidelines is generally tailored for the crime and applies to all similarly-situated felony offenders. For example, judges must follow a rating system based on the severity of the offender’s crime, the frequency of violations, and the nature of the crime. Rating scales are adjusted periodically by sentencing commissions to reflect statewide sentencing patterns.
Non-violent crimes have the lowest criminal rating, allowing judges the broadest range of sentencing options. In contrast, judges must impose very specific sentences for violent or serious crimes. Serious or violent felons sentenced to prison receive very little if any good time credit, and must serve a specified term while in prison. •Responsibility for community correctional service is delegated to local units of government. This joins sentencing and punishment in one administrative level, with incentives for the most efficient use of local and state correctional resources. •A post-prison release program, operated through a parole or probation system, is an integral component of a local community corrections treatment system. Community corrections sanctions may include:
•24-hour residential programs which provide a structured living environment for offenders who require supervision when not working or looking for employment; •Non-residential drug and alcohol treatment programs;
•Electronic monitoring of offenders placed on home detention (offenders must wear bracelets that allow parole officials to monitor their movement); •Diagnostic evaluation and counseling ordered by the court as part of a pre-sentence process; •Pre-trial intervention which provides close supervision and support services to selected offenders prior to trial; •Community service programs;
•Day reporting centers where offenders are required to discuss the progress of their job search and daily activities with parole officials; and •Mandatory education programs.
There are several key elements to an integrated community-based correctional program: •Collaborative long range planning by local and state law enforcement officials to reduce the use of prisons for felony sentencing; •Coordinated use of local and state correctional resources; •A state funding mechanism to ensure a local level of correctional services; and •Ensuring public safety in community correction facilities. One of the goals of sentencing guidelines is to match the community sanction with the offender.
The types of offenders which are considered for community sanctions include the following: •Offenders who might benefit from prevention services, and are of criminal activity in the future: school drop-outs, urban youth gang members, and juvenile offenders with learning disabilities. Prevention services could include mid-night basketball leagues, big brother programs, special education programs, and other activities. •Offenders who might benefit from early intervention services. This group is generally composed of first time offenders.
Early intervention may reduce their chances for committing future crimes. They generally require services related to education, work-skill development, and substance abuse and alcohol counseling. •Offenders who might be eligible for diversion programs. This group is basically those people in jail or prison who may safely be diverted to alternative programs and services. They generally are second or third time offenders who have failed on probation and have been convicted of a number of non-violent offenses. Under California’s “three strike’s law”, they could face life imprisonment if their first two felonies are violent and/or if the third felony is violent.
The goal of sentencing guidelines is to match target offender groups with the appropriate community sanction. While there are some variations among state sentencing guidelines, most establish punishment by the severity, frequency, and nature of the crime committed. For example, in Michigan, if an offender is arrested for burglary and has a previous drug arrest, state sentencing guideline ratings provide a range of sentencing options from alternative community corrections to up to a 24 month prison sentence. The community correction option allows the judge to sentence the offender to a secured community-based substance abuse treatment program for six months, followed by a short probation period.
The judge has the discretion to choose from an array of options. On the other hand, if an offender is convicted of a serious felony and has previous non-violent felony convictions, sentencing guidelines provide that alternative community corrections is not an option, and require a minimum 24 month prison sentence. While offenders sometimes violate the terms of a community correction sentence, so far there is no evidence that the offenders currently entering these programs are a danger to communities.
Evaluation studies are currently randomly tracking offenders who participate in community correction programs to determine the success or failure of the programs. The eight states which have enacted comprehensive community correction laws require a well-defined local implementation strategy that targets specific offender populations, and seeks to match their needs with the correct community sanction and service, before state funds are dispersed. Several states have also enacted on-going performance evaluation reviews to identify problem areas and fine-tune sentencing options.
The other four states do not offer financial incentives or disincentives, although local implementation strategies are closely monitored by state legislatures. Four of the 8 states also offer formula-based incentives which require community agencies to develop comprehensive, integrated long-range community correctional plans. The greater local resources and services available under the plan, the higher the state funding.
Most local plans are coordinated at the county level and identify all available community treatment programs, including prevention and intervention programs, training programs, and diversion programs. Local plans must include data detailing how the community correction programs are expected to reduce commitments to prison. The formula grants include a disincentive for sending certain kinds of felons to state prison, in the form of a per-diem fee which is deducted from the local grant.
Grantees are also required to monitor offenders for possible parole violations after they complete the community corrections program. Louisiana has the oldest state boot camp program in the country. The Intensive Motivational Program of Alternative Correctional Treatment (IMPACT) has as its goals: •Provide an alternative to long-term incarceration for youthful first- and second-time offenders. •Reduce costs without undue risk to public safety.
•Develop participants’ self-discipline, self-confidence, self-respect, individual responsibility, and respect for others. In order to participate, an offender must meet the following eligibility criteria: •Male and female offenders under the age of 40 serving sentences in state prison. •First time felony offenders committed to state custody for 7 years or less for an offense with parole eligibility.
•Second-time felony offenders who have not previously spent time in state prison and who have been committed to state custody for 7 years or less for an offense carrying parole eligibility. •No offenders with outstanding felony charges, numerous outstanding misdemeanor charges, outstanding immigration detainers, mental or physical health problems, history of assaulting behavior or escape, overt homosexuality, sex offense against a child or any violent sexual offense, or absence of post-release plan.
In 1987, the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections began operating a 136-bed military-style boot camp program at the medium-security Hunt Correctional Center (Up to 20 female slots are also available at the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women; these inmates are bused to the boot camp daily). The 90- to 180-day program uses a three-phase approach to promote its philosophy of discipline and treatment. Regular program activities include military drill and ceremony training, physical training and organized recreational activities.
Treatment programs include a re-education therapy class that requires participants to evaluate their beliefs and values, substance abuse education classes and activities, and prerelease (life skills) preparation. Extra duty or incentive physical training are required for minor disciplinary infractions. More serious infractions may result in reduction in rank, additional duties, or, in some cases, dismissal from the program. About 55 percent of participants graduate from the program.
On release, all IMPACT parolees are assigned to 3 months of intensive parole supervision where, in addition to the regular conditions mandated for all parolees (maintain employment or full-time educational training), they must satisfy the following requirements: a minimum of 4 face-to-face contacts with a supervision officer each week, adherence to a curfew, 100 hours of unpaid community service work and random drug and alcohol screenings. After 3 months, supervision standards are gradually relaxed.
Depending on individual performance, at the conclusion of this period, the parolee will continue receiving intensive supervision or is placed in regular parole supervision. According to the Multi-State Evaluation of Shock Incarceration report to the National Institute of Justice, Louisiana is one of three states who’s program results in lower recidivism rates relative to comparison groups. Failures are more often for technical violations of parole than for new crime violations. It is estimated that each 100 inmates completing the program result in a cost savings of $750,000 to the state (Nieto, Marcus: Feb. 1996).
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