Facebook pixel Dr. Angela Hawken on Why Criminals Don't Need to be in Prison to be Punished | Vox | Newsroom | School of Public Policy Newsroom Skip to main content
Pepperdine | School of Public Policy

Dr. Angela Hawken on Why Criminals Don't Need to be in Prison to be Punished | Vox

We don’t need to keep criminals in prison to punish them

by Mark A.R. Kleiman, Angela Hawken, & Ross Halperin on March 18, 2015, Vox

America's prison state is a disaster. One percent of the adult population is behind bars, and corrections is squeezing higher education out of state budgets. We have five times as many people in prison as we ever had before 1980, and five times as many (per capita) as any other advanced democracy.

What's worse is that it is, in this era, a completely unnecessary disaster. It's simply not true that to punish someone and control his behavior you need to lock him up and pay for his room and board.

While it lasts, prison is horrible for the prisoner and expensive for the state. And things often don't get better when it ends: of the people released from prison today, about 60 percent will be back inside within three years.

The transition from prison to the "free world" can be very tough, both for the offender and for the neighborhood he returns to. In the month after getting out, a person released from prison has about a dozen times the mortality rate of people of the same age, race, and sex in the same neighborhood, with the leading causes of death among former inmates being drug overdose, cardiovascular disease, homicide, and suicide.

This shouldn't be a surprise. Consider someone whose conduct earned him (much more rarely "her") a prison cell. Typically, that person went into prison with poor impulse control, weak if any attachment to the legal labor market, few marketable skills, and subpar work habits. More often than not, he's returning to a high-crime neighborhood. Many of his friends on the outside are also criminally active. Maybe, if he's lucky and has been diligent, he's learned something useful in prison. Perhaps he's even picked up a GED. But he hasn't learned much about how to manage himself in freedom because he hasn't had any freedom in the recent past. And he hasn't learned to provide for himself because he's been fed, clothed, and housed at public expense.

Now let him out with $40 in his pocket, sketchy if any identification documents, and no enrollment for basic income support, housing, or health insurance. Even if he has family or friends who can tide him over during the immediate transition, his chances of finding legitimate work in a hurry aren't very good. If he's not working, he has lots of free time to get into trouble and no legal way of supporting himself.

Altogether, it's a formula for failure — and failure is, too often, what it produces. But there is a better way. The current system never made sense, and it makes less sense every day. The cost of buildings and staff goes up every year; the cost of information collection goes down. We need to learn to substitute effective supervision for physical confinement. That's the idea behind "graduated re-entry."

Graduated re-entry: giving prisoners a little freedom at a time

To get back to our historic level of incarceration, we would have to reduce the prisoner headcount by 80 percent. We can't get from where we are to where we need to be just by releasing the innocent and harmless. More than half of today's prisoners are serving time for violent offenses, and even those now in prison for nonviolent crimes often have violent histories. Solving mass incarceration requires releasing some seriously guilty and dangerous people. The problem is how to do that while also protecting public safety by turning ex-criminals into productive, free citizens.

For the transition from prison to life outside to be successful, it needs to be gradual. If someone needed to be locked up yesterday, he shouldn't be completely at liberty today. And he shouldn't be asked to go from utter dependency to total self-sufficiency in one flying leap. He needs both more control and more support. Neither alone is likely to do the job.

Of course, both control and support cost money. But so does prison. The trick is to start the re-entry process before what would otherwise have been the release date, so the money you spend in the community is balanced by the money you're not spending on a cell. The average cost of holding a prisoner comes to about $2,600 per month. At the same time, even very intrusive supervision leaves a released offender freer than he would have been on the inside. So even a program that looks expensive and intrusive compared with ordinary re-entry or parole is cheap and liberating compared with a cellblock.

Start with housing. A substantial fraction of prison releasees go from a cellblock to living under a bridge: not a good way to start free life. Spend some of the money that would otherwise have financed a prison cell to rent a small, sparsely furnished efficiency apartment. In some ways, that apartment is still a cell and the offender still a prisoner. He can't leave it or have visitors except as specifically permitted. The unit has cameras inside and is subject to search. But he doesn't need guards, and doesn't have to worry about prison gangs or inmate-on-inmate assault.

Drug testing and sanctions can avoid relapse to problem drug use; GPS monitoring can show where the re-entrant is all the time, which in turn makes it easy to know whether he's at work when he's supposed to be at work and at home when he's supposed to be at home. This makes curfews enforceable and keeps him away from personal "no-go" zones (the street corner where he used to deal, the vicinity of his victim's residence). GPS would also place him at the scene of any new crime he might commit, thus drastically reducing his chances of getting away with it and therefore his willingness to take the gamble.

The apartment functions as a prison without bars.

In some ways, it's a fairly grim existence, especially at the beginning: the offender starts off under a strict curfew, allowed out only for work, job hunting, and necessary personal business (food shopping, medical care, service appointments), as well as to meet the correctional officer in charge of his supervision. And he's required to work full-time at a public-service job, earning a little less than the minimum wage. On top of that, he has to spend time looking for an ordinary paying job (being supplied with appropriate clothing and some coaching in how to do a job search). He never touches money except for small change; he makes purchases as needed with an EBT or debit card, and only for approved items. The "no-cash" rule both makes it harder to buy drugs or a gun and reduces the benefits of criminal activity. Since he's eating at home, he needs food, some minimal kitchen equipment, and perhaps some simple cooking lessons. (Whether groceries are delivered or whether he's expected to shop for his own food right away is another detail to work out.)

Minor violations — staying out beyond curfew, using alcohol or other drugs, missing work or misbehaving at work, missing appointments — can be sanctioned by temporary tightening of restrictions, or even a couple of days back behind bars, in addition to slowing the offender's progress toward liberty. Major violations — serious new offenses, attempts to avoid supervision by removing position-monitoring gear — lead to immediate termination from the program and return to prison. Not, on the whole, an easy life. But it's much simpler than the challenge of a sudden transition from prison to the street.

Moreover, if you were to ask a prisoner who has now served two years of a five-year sentence (for drug dealing, say, or burglary), "Would you like to get out of prison right now and into the situation I just described?" the odds of his saying "Yes" would be excellent. And if he didn't, his cellmate would. Indeed, entry to the program could be offered as a reward for good behavior in prison, improving matters for those still "inside" — and those guarding them — as well as those released.

And — this is the central point — the offender's freedom increases over time, as long as he does what he's supposed to do. Yes, violations of the rules are sanctioned. But compliance and achievement are rewarded with increased freedom. Every sustained period of compliance with the rules — at first, even a couple of days — leads to some relaxation of the rules. Successful completion of the first 48 hours out of prison might earn a few hours' freedom to leave the unit other than for work or other necessary business. Further relaxation might change the rule from "out only as allowed" to a curfew ("not out after 6 pm"), which then could be made later and later as the offender builds up a history of compliance. All of those transitions would be by formula, not at the whim of the supervisor, so that the subject knows the exact timing of his next milestone and exactly how much freedom he will obtain if he hits it. That tight coupling between behavior and results is the best way to gradually build the habits that will allow the ex-offender to stay out of trouble.

From the viewpoint of the system, the whole process is graduated re-entry. From the former prisoner's viewpoint, it looks like a chance to earn his freedom.

The goal: finding and keeping a job

The ex-prisoner's biggest accomplishment would be finding (and holding) a "real" job, whether private or nonprofit. From the program's viewpoint, an employed subject should be virtually cost-neutral other than the cost of monitoring. In most housing markets, even a minimum-wage job can pay the rent on an efficiency apartment plus the grocery bill. That means every re-entrant who finds a job would allow for the release of another prisoner; that's the way such a program could grow to a scale big enough to noticeably change the incarceration rate. Better yet, once a former prisoner has become self-supporting, and developed the habits necessary to hold a job, his risk of recidivism plunges.

For a re-entrant who gets and holds a real job, life would become much less prison-like. He would still be subject to drug testing and position monitoring, but employment would earn him considerably more freedom of movement, including the right to visit his family (until then closely rationed) and to have approved visitors in what is now regarded as his apartment.

Some of his paycheck would go toward his rent; some, perhaps, toward child support or restitution; and some to a bank account in his name but still under official control while he remains, legally, a prisoner. But some of it — an increasing amount over time — would be his to spend, though still not in cash (and therefore not on anything he's not allowed to have). If he gets fired for cause, he loses those privileges until he gets a new one. If he gets laid off, he has some amount of time to find a new position before he steps back. But the price of sustained liberty is sustained employment.

Given the lamentable record of offender employment programs (including the transition from supported work to the regular economy), finding and holding a job might seem out of reach for most offenders. But the success of some job-oriented, incentive-based programs — federal probation in St. Louis, the Montgomery County Pre-Release Center in Rockville, Maryland, and the Alternatives to Incarceration program in Georgia — seems to indicate that if supervision can make offenders genuinely interested in getting and holding jobs, many of them are capable of doing so. For a low-wage employer, a worker who will show up sober, on time, and strongly motivated (by the gain in freedom he gets from holding a job) might well represent a reasonable bet, despite a prison record. And of course someone who has succeeded for a while in maintaining on-the-books employment has a much better chance of finding another job when he needs to or wants to.

Eventually the transition from a prisoner in a cell to a person with a job and an apartment is complete. (How long "eventually" lasts is another crucial detail to be determined largely by experience, and might well vary from offender to offender based on sex, age, and criminal history.) At that point, the ex-offender (and we can hope, with some basis, that he is now truly an ex-offender) could be released from his legal role as a "prisoner" and put on parole or other post-release supervision, or even given unconditional liberty.

There's no way to guess in advance how many prisoners would succeed in making the transition: for all the statistical work on risk assessment, looking into the soul remains hard, and looking into the future impossible. It's not even obvious whether the success rate would be higher with men or with women, with younger or older offenders, with those convicted of nonviolent crimes or of violent ones. But there's good reason to think the success rate would be higher for graduated release than for the current approach, and that the costs of the program could be more than recouped from the savings in reduced incarceration, now and in the future. But budget savings aren't the main goal: the greatest benefits would flow to the offenders, to their families, to their neighborhoods, and to those who otherwise would have been the victims of their future crimes.

Can we really get back to a civilized level of incarceration while continuing to push crime rates down? We can't know until we try. Graduated re-entry might work. That's more than can be said for any other proposal now on the table. If we find a version of it that works somewhere, expand it there and try it elsewhere. If not, go back to the drawing board. But sticking with the existing system, and accepting its disastrous results, is not a reasonable choice.

Note: This article was also cited in theWashington Post , Washington Monthly, The Aspen Institute's Five Best Ideas of the Day, and Bloomberg View.