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Crime Stats and Policy


Michael Connelly over at Corrections Sentencing has this post regarding the latest criminal justice statistics showing an increase in reported violent crimes. Connelly's post argues that most pundits are missing the chance to suggest that more crime leads to worse laws; that is, the fear of violence drives legislatures to enact unwise, and presumably harsh, laws. Indeed, our criminal justice policies are not wise when prompted by emotions. Moreover, given the innumerable variables that likely affect crime from year to year, the latest statistics might just represent normal variation instead of the beginning of a trend -- only time will tell. However, this part of Connelly's post deserves a brief comment:

"Why not point out that the resources devoted to putting tokers in prison could be put into cops on the street"

Many folks within the criminal justice reform movement often make these types of assertions: that the money spent on incarceration would be better spent putting more police on the street. But more police means more enforcement, which means more punishment. Such a policy would likely lead to more incarceration, the very phenomenon reformers dislike. Prevention efforts are noble yet the evidence is lacking that they actually work. Many supporters cite to various studies suggesting that programs like drug courts work; yet the methodology used in these studies leaves much to be desired.

The growth of our criminal codes during the past thirty years is breathtaking. Every year the penal law books get thicker and more conduct falls under the purview of our criminal justice system. Yet sometimes less is more: both in terms of the criminal codes and our fiscal outlays towards solving unwanted conduct. The problem lies not where our criminal justice money goes but the fact that we spend so much trying to enforce an increasingly burdensome criminal code. The code itself, of course, is an attempt to control behavior. When we're talking about malice in se crimes this makes a lot of sense: murder, rape, assault needs to be prevented and punished. When the crimes are mala prohibita, it becomes less convincing that our monies are well spent; especially when recidivism rates remain high. If incarceration for non-violent crimes are bad; sentencing alternatives are worse because they provide a form of social engineering under the threat of force inherent in our criminal justice system. Sometimes you simply can't force people to be better citizens.


How much is currently being spent "putting tokers in prison"? More specifically, what percentage of the current state prison population consists of persons sentenced for possession of marijuana for personal use? Drug offenders total are 20%, according to the Sourcebook, but I suspect a tiny fraction of that are merely "tokers."

Here are four reports about the results (largely failures) of rehabilitation programs.

1) Rethinking Rehabilitation (2005)

The evidence of research about the effectiveness of rehabilitation programs is noted by Farabee (2005):

"I wish it were otherwise, but scientific evidence is sorely lacking to support the effectiveness of rehabilitation programs for criminal offenders. It is similarly lacking to support the effectiveness of most programs aimed at treating conditions that exacerbate crime, such as substance abuse and dependence. Although a limited menu of behavioral and pharmacological treatments have shown small to moderate effects among offenders when administered under controlled research conditions, those effects tend to decline rapidly soon after criminal justice supervision is withdrawn." (p. ix)

Farabee, D. (2005). Rethinking rehabilitation: Why can’t we reform our criminals?.Washington D.C.: AEI Press. http://www.aei.org/books/bookID.806,filter.all/book_detail.asp

2) Project Greenlight (2005)

Most are like a recent example reported by Wilson (2005) Project Greenlight, a well-funded and closely evaluated—extremely rare for the field—reentry effort that failed spectacularly:

"Contrary to the expectations of program planners and research staff alike, Greenlight participants recidivated at higher rates than either of the comparison groups after one year post-release. Most of these differences were statistically significant and held across multiple measures of recidivism, including new arrests, new felony arrests, and revocation. Assignment to the Greenlight group remained significant in multivariate models. The Upstate group, [a control group] which received no pre-release reentry programming, recidivated at the lowest rate." (Executive Summary)

Wilson, J., Cheryachukin, Y., Davis, R. C., Dauphinee, J., Hope, R., Gehi, K, & Ross, T.(2005). Smoothing the path from prison to home: A summary. NIJ Grant #2002-RT-BX-1001. New York: Vera Institute of Justice. http://www.vera.org/publication_pdf/319_590.pdf

3) California Prison Substance Abuse (2007)

The most recent and much more costly failure ($1 billion dollars since 1989) was reported by the Office of the Inspector General in California in their February 2007 report:

"Unfortunately, as presently operated, the in-prison substance abuse treatment programs managed by the Office of Substance Abuse Programs are ineffective at reducing recidivism and in that regard represent both a waste of money and a missed opportunity to change lives. Numerous university studies of the programs over the past nine years consistently show little or no difference in recidivism rates between participants of the in-prison programs and inmates who received no substance abuse treatment. In fact, a five-year university of California, Los Angeles study of the two largest in-prison programs found that the 12-month recidivism rate for inmates who had received in-prison treatment was slightly higher than that of a nonparticipating control group." (p. 1)

Office of the Inspector General in California. (2007). Special review into in-prison substance abuse programs managed by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.Sacramento, CA: California State Printing.

4) Washington State Study (2007)

The Washington State Institute for Public Policy just did a study of various rehabilitation program effectiveness, finding few that showed much success: see here http://www.wsipp.wa.gov/rptfiles/07-08-1202.pdf

Could it be that criminal behavior is a choice made by an individual with free will to act lawfully? Does a person commit crimes as a consequence of a sociopathic personality, or does a person have a sociopathic personality as a consequence of repeated choices to victimize the innocent?

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