More Prisons Won’t Reduce Crime
Alternatives to prison for lesser offenders save taxes, lower crime.
While other states are substantially reducing their prison populations and closing prisons with virtually no negative effect on public safety, some Wisconsin politicians want to build a brand-new, 2,000-bed, $350 million prison.
As one way to fill it, these Wisconsin politicians want to force judges to send more people convicted of certain crimes to prison, no matter the circumstances of the particular case.
The politicians are pushing mandatory minimum prison sentences for more crimes. They also want to force probation and parole agents to recommend revoking more people from supervision so they are likely sent to prison, even when the probation and parole agent deems it unnecessary.
If politicians pass more so-called “tough on crime” legislation, increase the penalties for crimes, and force judges to send more people to prison, even when doing so is completely unnecessary in a particular case, they know they can fill as many prisons as they want.
But unlike in Wisconsin, other states have taken a far more fiscally responsible, common-sense approach to prison reform. For example, politicians in both red and blue states like Texas, New York, South Carolina, New Jersey, California and Michigan have diverted people away from prisons and closed prisons.
Politicians in these states have done so through legislative and policy changes designed to make it so fewer people go to prison, and if they do go to prison, their sentences are shorter.
Well more than half of the states in this country have passed legislation to cut back on mandatory minimum sentences.
States that have implemented these policies for the longest periods of time, such as New York, New Jersey and California, have many years of evidence to show reducing prison populations and closing prisons has not caused spikes in crime nor has doing so had a negative effect on public safety.
Starting in the late 1990s or mid-2000s, these three states reduced their prison populations by approximately 25 percent. During that time, violent crime rates were going down nationally. However, violent crime rates decreased at greater rates in New York, New Jersey and California than the nationwide average.
Between 1999 and 2012, when New York and New Jersey reduced their prison populations by 26 percent, the national prison population increased by 10 percent.
If you need more evidence that Wisconsin politicians’ “more prison” legislation is misguided and unnecessary, look to our neighbors in Minnesota. The populations of Minnesota and Wisconsin are roughly equal. Both states have similar crime rates. However, Wisconsin has more than double the prison population of Minnesota.
Prison reform and evidence-based sentencing has bipartisan support from national Democrats and Republicans, many of whom understand our current path is unsustainable. For example, conservative billionaire Charles Koch, a man often demonized by liberals, supports initiatives aimed at curbing what he calls the “over-criminalization of America.” Newt Gingrich is involved in similar efforts.
While “do the crime, serve the time” is a catchy slogan, incarceration is not always the most effective way to reduce crime.
A 1999 comprehensive study titled “The Effects of Prison Sentences on Recidivism,” which controlled for risk factors like criminal history and substance abuse, found longer prison sentences were associated with a 3 percent increase in repeat offenders.
Prisons in the United States are not filled just with those who committed violent crimes, such as murder or assault. Statistics show more than half of prison inmates are serving sentences for nonviolent crimes — property, drug and public order offenses. Many people in prison are addicted to drugs or alcohol, and prisons are rarely equipped to effectively deal with addiction.
To make our communities safer and reduce recidivism, we must not automatically and reflexively just “build more prisons.” To be sure, some people have committed crimes that necessitate prison sentences. But for many others, probation and alternative-to-incarceration programs are excellent options because they can effectively hold people accountable, reform them into productive citizens again, and help to reduce an enormous burden on taxpayers.
Many states have implemented policies that have done just that, and our Wisconsin politicians should look to those states for guidance.
Casey Hoff is a criminal defense attorney based in Sheboygan.