(This is the fourth of 10 posts. Each is a chapter from the Building a Safe Community project I did for the county.)
“Without education, job skills and other basic services,” said Louisiana’s Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal on March 18, 2011, “offenders are likely to repeat the same steps that brought them to jail in the first place … This is a problem that needs to be addressed head-on. We cannot say we are doing everything we can to keep our communities safe if we are not addressing the high rate at which offenders are becoming repeat criminals.”
The past 40 years: Until about a decade ago, “command and control” was common wisdom in the U.S. criminal justice system.
It worked like this: Arrest as many as possible. Charge with the highest charges. Set the highest bonds. Incarcerate with long, mandatory sentences at minimum conditions. Protect the staff. Keep the bad guys behind bars. Build bigger jails and prisons; hire more guards. Repeat.
The get-tough-on-crime culture was a logical response to the escalating crime rates of the three, pre-Millennium decades. Communities were afraid; getting criminals off the streets seemed a commonsense approach. Get criminals off the street, punish them for their crimes, and they’ll learn not to do it again.
In part, it worked. Prison and jail construction coupled with increased staffing, both direct results of those get-tough policies, are credited with one-quarter to one-third of the drop in crime in the 1990s.
In the early 1990s, however, the national crime rate began to drop, reflecting, among other things, those get-tough practices, changes in law enforcement approaches and different drug markets – and an aging population. The national crime rate today is the lowest it has been since 1968.
Today, not only are the traditional get-tough approaches too costly for taxpayers, they are no longer considered best practices in criminal justice – and incarceration dollars invested no longer provides significant return. Those who support the “crime doesn’t pay” policies of the past are out of step with today’s evidence-based, results-driven alternative-to-incarceration programs.
What is working? Today’s nationally recognized best practices are evidence based, results driven and statistically proven. No one with criminal justice expertise would argue against permanent, punitive incarceration for heinous offenders.
The challenge for the lay community and for criminal justice experts is moving beyond the diminishing returns of a one-size-fits-all incarceration-only model and integrating proven, comprehensive, wrap-around alternative-to-incarceration models.
Building a safe community – nationally and in Winnebago County – requires both approaches – not either-or. And, the best measurement for determining what’s working is recidivism statistics. The fewer offenders returning to jail or prison, the more likely a community feels safe.
Research by the nationally recognized Pew Center for the States and Rutgers University’s Center for Behavioral Health Services and Criminal Justice Research provide increasingly clear direction on best practices for building safe communities. Among the most promising criminal justice models:
- Diversion programs: For first-time offenders with crimes such as writing bad checks, retail theft/shoplifting, or low-level drug charges, diversion programs provide training, counseling and education. If the offender completes the program successfully, no charges are filed. At it’s simplest; diversion programs pull offenders “out of line” before they get into the criminal justice system.
- Deferred prosecution: Once in the criminal justice system, offenders can apply for a deferred prosecution program. Used primarily for non-violent felony offenders, deferred prosecution programs charge the offender, require an admission of guilt and an extensive acceptance of what they have done. It also requires successful completion of intensive counseling and education. Completed successfully, the prosecutor does not pursue charges.
- Problem-solving courts: Also known as specialty courts, these courts are comprised of teams of specially trained judges, attorneys, probation officers and clinical specialists who provide wraparound services and intensive monitoring of defendants who are in the criminal justice or child welfare systems primarily because of symptoms of their substance abuse, mental health, co-occurring diseases and/or trauma issues. By combining access to treatment and court oversight and accountability, the participants in the specialty courts can achieve and maintain recovery and become contributing members of our community and dramatically reduce their rates of recidivism.
- Alternative-to-incarceration models: Once found guilty, offenders can be sentenced to incarceration and/or to an array of programs designed to prepare the offender for a non-criminal life in the community. These programs, which are generally available in jail settings or in the community, include basic education, substance abuse treatment, mental health intervention, job skills training and cognitive behavior therapy to address such issues as anger management.
- Reentry models: Since about 95 percent of all inmates are released, reentry programs are critical to long-term success and reducing recidivism. These programs support offenders as they learn how to live outside jails or prisons. From finding a place to live to getting a job, reentry programs provide the structured, supervised environment as an offender makes the transition from a cell to a community.
1. The report: How it came about and what I did
2. Executive summary: My ten conclusions and observations from the report
3. An overview: Among the dissonance, agreement
4. The past 40 years: Changes on the national level
5. Winnebago County criminal justice system: From command-and-control to wrap-around-services
6. Crime in Winnebago County
7. The impact of the one-cent public safety sales tax
8. Alternative to incarceration: Better results. Lower costs
9. The Resource Intervention Center: A 21st century model
10. A week at the RIC