ST. LOUIS • Imagine investing $50 billion a year in a program that only has a 50 percent success rate.
That’s the annual tab in the U.S. to hold more than 2 million people in jails and prisons on any given day. Experts say half of them wind up back behind bars within three years of being released from custody.
And yet, academics and criminal justice professionals who gathered here Friday for a conference at Washington University came with fresh optimism about a trend that over the past 40 years has led the U.S. to have the largest incarcerated population in the world.
That’s because the era of “mass incarceration” seems to have peaked at nearly 2.4 million people in jail and prison. Now, they say, a new way of thinking is needed to guide the country into the era of “decarceration.”
“What would it look like if we started over?” asked panelist Margaret Severson, professor of social work at the University of Kansas. “Who would we incarcerate? What would they look like? What could we do to intervene, and what could we do to help people when they return?”
Carrie Pettus-Davis, co-director of the “Smart Decarceration Initiative,” said justice needs to be redefined in America. She told the group of 150 people to find ways science can play a central role in determining which programs are effective at rehabilitating criminals.
“Much of what led to mass incarceration was the enactment of policies and practices based on political motivations, reactionary approaches and trendy, but not grounded solutions,” said Pettus-Davis, an assistant professor at Washington University’s Brown School of Social Work.
Her colleague with the initiative, Matt Epperson, of the University of Chicago, said there is bipartisan agreement that the jail and prison system needs a major overhaul.
“The political will for mass incarceration has all but dried up,” he said.
Still, there are major obstacles that merely cutting the numbers won’t solve.
As a hard lesson, they looked to President John F. Kennedy’s call to reduce the number of people held in psychiatric hospitals by 50 percent in about 15 years. The effort exceeded its goal, but the mentally ill struggled to integrate into society. Jails have become the largest mental health hospitals in the country.
Michael Pinard, an attorney from Baltimore, said “every stitch” of the criminal justice system needs to be reformed, including criminal records. He said people who served their sentences in the community and never went to prison are still stigamatized and have a hard time getting jobs and housing.
“They are weighed down by their records that will never be forgotten,” he said. “We should all have the opportunity to move past the dark periods of our life.”
Alison Holcomb, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s campaign to end mass incarceration, said she attended the conference with an ear for solutions that involve people from a diversity of fields, including those who have been incarcerated.
She said the main obstacles ahead are finding out “how to rearrange all the systems that are having an impact on our criminal justice system and the number of people going behind bars.”
While the number of people being incarcerated has gradually dropped in recent years, panelist Michael Jacobson said the prison population needs to shed another 1 million people to get out of the “mass incarceration” category. For that to happen, the public and politicians will have to be convinced to think differently about violent crime and be more lenient.
“You can’t say you are going to end mass incarceration without taking that issue on,” said Jacobson, former head of the New York City jail system.
Panelist George Lombardi, director of the Missouri Department of Corrections, agreed that more violent offenders should be released. He said while their initial crime may be alarming, their re-offense rates are lower than burglars and other criminals who see prison as a cost of doing business.
“That’s a really critical issue that needs to be looked at, but it’s hard because the public isn’t ready,” Lombardi said. “It’s a hopeful possibility because those people, for the most part, will not re-offend.”
He also agreed that change needs to happen at the local level. He said chambers of commerce, civic and religious organizations need to be convinced that “public safety is served by dealing with these offenders and helping them out.”
Lombardi said working with people on probation before they end up in prison would be a “wise investment in decarceration,” as well as the long-term investment of early childhood education for at risk youth.
“A lot of offenders are missing compassion for others either because they never had it to begin with or it was suppressed by childhood trauma,” he said. “Childhood trauma is really a critical piece to people ending up in the criminal justice system.”
In a brief interview after the panel, Lombardi said he doesn’t hesitate to implement programs for offenders “who want to make a change.”
“What you need to do is talk to the prosecutor’s association, the public defenders, the politicians,” he said. “Those are the people who are going to make a difference on the big decarceration issues. I am just doing what I can.”
Shake off your afternoon slump with the oft-shared and offbeat news of the day, hand-brewed by our online news editor, Mandy St. Amand.