Friday, February 19, 2010


Over two years ago, I wrote a piece for this blog called “Addiction to imprisonment.” Now, with the economy in distress, some government and judicial leaders are looking at kicking the habit. Consider the statements of Judge William Ray Price, Jr., the chief justice of the Supreme Court of Missouri, at his recent “State of the Judiciary” speech:

“For years we have waged a “war on drugs,” enacted “three strikes and you’re out” sentencing laws, and “thrown away the key” to be tough on crime. What we did not do was check to see how much it costs, or whether we were winning or losing. In fact, it has cost us billions of dollars and we have just as much crime now as we did when we started. We have created a bottleneck by arresting far more people than we can handle down through the rest of the system. . . . It does no good to commit resources to law enforcement and to arrest criminals if you don’t know what you are going to do with them, or you cannot afford to do what you should with them, after they have been arrested. It does no good.”

Judge Price went on to address the crisis in the Missouri Public Defender System and the inequities in the prosecution of offenses in Missouri, both topics that deserve posts of their own. Then he went on,

“Perhaps the biggest waste of resources in all of state government is the over-incarceration of nonviolent offenders and our mishandling of drug and alcohol offenders. It is costing us billions of dollars and it is not making a dent in crime. Listen to these numbers. In 1994, shortly after I came to the Court, the number of nonviolent offenders in Missouri prisons was 7,461. Today it’s 14,204. That’s almost double. . . . In 1994, appropriations to the Department of Corrections totaled $216,753,472. Today, it’s $670,079,452. The amount has tripled. And the recidivism rate for these individuals, who are returned to prison within just two years, is 41.6 percent. . . . [T]he simple fact is, we are spending unbelievable sums of money to incarcerate nonviolent offenders, and our prison population of new offenders is going up, not down -- with a recidivism rate that guarantees this cycle will continue to worsen at a faster and faster pace, eating tens of millions of dollars in the process. Missouri cannot afford to spend this much money without getting results. The problem is that we are following a broken strategy of cramming inmates into prisons and not providing the type of drug treatment and job training that is necessary to break their cycle of crime. Any normal business would have abandoned this failed practice years ago, and it is costing us our shirts.”

And, Judge Price proposed a solution: “We need to move from anger-based sentencing that ignores cost and effectiveness to evidence-based sentencing that focuses on results—sentencing that assesses each offender’s risk and then fits that offender with the cheapest and most effective rehabilitation that he or she needs.”

No one who follows the Supreme Court of Missouri would describe Judge Price as soft on crime. So when he shows signs of having awakened to the imprisonment addiction problem—aptly described as “anger-based sentencing—it gives me real hope that change is possible.

Judge Price’s proposals, although they suggest a major change in direction, are not radical enough. He seems to think that whatever we do to persons convicted of violent offenses is still all right. (“Violent offenders need to be separated from us so they cannot hurt innocent men, women or children, regardless of the cost.”) Actually, there have been recent advances in the treatment of violent offenders that show significant promise. In an Australian study of the effects of restorative justice programs, which allow crime victims to interact with the offenders, “In the first two years after arrest, violent offenders who participated in conferences had about 50 percent less reoffending than those who went to court.” (The study also noted positive effects for victims. For example, “Almost half of the court-assigned victims said they would harm their offenders if they had the chance, compared to only 9 percent of conference participants.”) Interestingly, restorative justice techniques seem to reduce recidivism more among violent offenders than non-violent offenders. That’s not an argument for locking up more non-violent offenders; it just means that other techniques may be needed for rehabilitation for them.

But the major good news here is the suggestion of a shift in focus back to rehabilitation from “anger-based sentencing.” That will have several salutary effects, if it occurs. It will bring marginalized persons back into the work force and into full participation in their communities. It will save money. And it will fulfill the admonition of Jesus that: “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” Matt. 25:40, NIV.