"Lock 'em up and throw away the key!" is a common response when people become frustrated with repeat offenders. I certainly don't want someone who has a high likelihood of breaking into my car living in my neighborhood. Maybe it is a good thing that the Massachusetts Department of Correction's inmate population is around 140 percent of its capacity, maybe it's not.
We need prisons. There are some people who are going to be repeat offenders and for whom there really is little or no hope. The problem is that, by definition, we won't know who these chronic offenders are until they have reoffended chronically. Predicting behavior is about probability, not absolutes.
If crime had a simple solution, we probably wouldn't have any crime. While the best crime prevention begins at home, criminal justice is a political issue. And too often, highly publicized and non-representative cases determine what is going to happen in the majority of situations.
So how should we approach mass incarceration?
Think of crime like you would illness. There are many causes and there are many remedies. There are both environmental and genetic predispositions to illness. In curing illness, some things work, some things don't, and some things are even counterproductive.
The important thing to note is that we can't build our way out of crime and prison overcrowding anymore than a hospital can build its way out of illness. Attacking the root cause of the illness is key. Trying to patch up those who are ill and then sending them back into the same conditions isn't going to solve anything. Prison as the only solution 1) doesn't solve the underlying cause of the problem, 2) is impossibly expensive, and 3) it's never worked anywhere.
More than 98 percent of inmates in prison and jail today are going to be released. Massachusetts and its 14 counties have jurisdiction of around 20,000 inmates right now. Keeping offenders locked up indefinitely isn't an option since it leads to overcrowding, which is expensive and a safety concern for the staff who work there. If you think building more prisons is the solution, how do you propose we pay to build, staff, and maintain the new prisons? The Massachusetts Department of Corrections budget is about half a billion dollars a year. There is no possible (or fair) way to get that from the families of offender, or through inmate labor. The truth is that we are already paying for prisons through taxes. Yet, in Massachusetts, there is no debate about how prudent or effective this is. Meanwhile there are many Republicans southern states who are realizing that mass incarceration isn't sustainable and is too costly.
Across the country we find that the more we build prisons, the more we fill them; this isn't a solution. And no matter how angry offenders make us, physical punishment isn't a solution either; the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution permits that we send people to prison as punishment but not for punishment.
Most people who commit crimes do so because they either don't think they are going to get caught or are impulsive. With this in mind, making sentences longer isn't about prevention; it is about politicians trying to get tough on crime so that they get reelected, and it leads to mass incarceration. There are few issues in politics more easily exploited than a candidate who is called soft on crime. But sometimes what appears soft on crime actually reduces crime, reduces budgets and can reduce taxes. And sometimes what appears tough on crime can actually cost a lot just to make offenders worse off.
For example, the research on juvenile Scared Straight programs has consistently shown that said program makes at-risk kids worse off - it actually removes their fear of incarceration and it hardens already troubled kids. Moreover, incarceration is a right of passage for some youth; this is a serious social illness.
What we are dealing with is a piecemeal system where incompatible parts have been slapped together over time. If an effective criminal justice system were to be designed from scratch, it would look different than what we currently have, but it won't change until there is an informed public dialogue.
PAUL HEROUX of Attleboro is a former director of research and planning of the Massachusetts Department of Criminology, holds a master's in criminology, and is a candidate for a master's in public administration at the JFK School of Government at Harvard University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.