Like all big government solutions, they are expensive. In the course of my studies dealing with the criminal justice system, I have learned that the federal government spends approximately $80,000 dollars to build one cell, and $28,000 per year to keep a prisoner locked up. The cost in state prison for example California is significantly lower, $40,000 to build one cell and $15,000 per year. Both figures are higher than it costs to educate a student at the college level. These figures are not getting any lower.
Our prisons are currently overcrowded and to maintain our current prison population it is estimated that more than ten billion dollars needs to be spent on construction. As a society we not only pay economic costs but the very nature of prison, no matter how humane society attempts to make it, produces an environment that is inevitably devastating to its residents. Many Americans believe in our current prison system, and also believe that it is an effective form of punishment for the criminal. Some would say that criminals could live decent, civilized lives in prison then graduate to decent, civilized lives in the free world. My question to these people is; how can criminals live civilized lives in an environment that only offers chaos and mild forms of anarchy? It is well known what goes on behind closed doors in prison; terrible atrocities that make the blood boil and the stomach curdle are the only thing these prisoners are accustomed to while they are in prison.
Most inmates learn little of value during their confinement behind bars, mostly because they adapt to prison in immature and often self-defeating ways. As a result, they leave prison no better and sometimes considerably worse-than when they went in. The first time offender who is arrested for burglary does not belong in a prison where the only thing he will learn is how to become a better and more violent burglar. Generally speaking crime is the result of morally responsible people making wrong moral decisions, for which they must be held accountable. Charles Manson and other infamous criminals are the exception. The prison was not designed to cure the individual; it was made to lock him up.
Prisons do succeed at locking individuals up. They do not succeed at re-entering the individual into the free world. Study after study shows that the recidivism rate of non-violent criminals who are released back into society is extremely high. Statistics vary, but all are between the ranges of 85% – 95%. Some people argue the penalties for non-violent offenders should be stiffened.
If 4 years in prison does not deter criminal activity why do we think 6 will? I volunteer about 20 hours a week sometimes more to a project in San Francisco known as Delancy Street. This and other non-profit organizations similar to it across the country propose and implement work programs for non-violent criminals. Not all programs work the same way as Delancy Street. But basically they are work programs; where the criminal is given a job and must relinquish his or her earnings to pay for their cost of living at the center and in some cases pay the victim of their crime restitution.
The court decides the restitution aspect and, living expenses, amount of co-op to be performed etc. are decided by the individual center. Most centers provide counseling, in areas such as family relations, and drug abuse. While there are centers nation wide they can only provide for a very small percentage of the non-violent prison population (approx 2%). Supervision is limited to check in times at meals, counseling appointments, and bed check (this varies depending on the center).
The basic concept is that these are low security facilities designed for non-violent criminals. This is a program that the individual has to be willing to complete, to succeed. Assuming that the individual completes the program successfully, he does not just walk out the door. He then becomes an outpatient still responsible to check in and maintain employment. This program and others like it allow the individual to maintain contact with the free world in areas such as family visits and their job. Thus making the transition to the free world much easier.
Don t get me wrong this is no vacation between, counseling, a job, co-op work at the center and maintaining relationships with their family an individual is extremely busy. They do not live in comfortable surroundings, but rather adequate surroundings. Delancy Street has bunk beds, and 12 people to one bathroom. In some ways they are worse off here than in prison. Delancy Street and other centers like it are restricted in their expansion by many obstacles. The first and foremost is funding, that is they are non-profit and rely 100% on what the current population of the center earns, volunteers, and donations.
The second largest hurdle is eligibility, while these centers cater toward non-violent offenders they are not a part of the legal system. So assuming the criminal is even aware of such a program he (or his lawyer) must then request a court order from a judge. This is somewhat arbitrary and basically up to the judge. Most criminals are not violent (statistically); approximately 70% of criminals would be eligible for a work program similar to Delancy Street. Many of my co-workers at the center would like to see programs like Delancy Street expanded independently.
I do not subscribe to this opinion. Rather, I believe that centers such as Delancy Street should be incorporated into our legal system. I would like to see prisons reserved for violent criminals, and those who fail in a work program environment. I am not claiming that these centers can or will rehabilitate any and all criminals. Each centers recidivism’s rate is different. Delancy Street is 60% and while this is still high, San Quentin (the prison from which they take individuals) is 95%.
The 60% who fail at Delancy street, that is those who can t keep their job, aren t interested in counseling, or can t get along with the rest of the population, are sent back to San Quentin. I would like to see government funding allocated to such centers, the cost would be low since most are self-sufficient. The funds would allow the programs to expand and potentially take more people. The money would allow the centers to hire doctors, and other staff rather than relying exclusively on volunteers. Government funding would also allow such centers to become a part of our legal system. They would be more uniform, which would ultimately lower the costs, and increase the success rate.
I am not suggesting this money be taken from taxpayers pockets, it has already been taken; I am suggesting that money for prisons be re-allocated. Basically, I am suggesting that when a non-violent criminal is convicted of his or her first offense, he or she be given the option to enter a work program. Assuming they choose the program they should not be sent to prison until they have failed the program. The program should require they work for wages, as well as cooperative work within the center such as kitchen duty. Their wages should pay for their cost of living, and some should be set aside by the center to help with their cost of re-entering the free world. Once they complete the program they should be required to return for counseling and assistance as they need it to re-enter society.
Lastly, I would like to see these programs not reliant on donations and volunteers, but rather funded with money already allocated for prisons. The billions and billions of dollars spent annually as well as the social costs on our society are part of a huge problem. I am not suggesting that a work program is the one and only solution. We did not get to where we are today from yesterday; therefore, we should not expect a solution tomorrow. Nor should we expect a single solution.
This solution is viable for about 30% of our non-violent prison population; in California alone this affects over 100,000 people. The cost would be no more to a taxpayer than what we pay today. Ultimately the cost to society and the taxpayer would be lower than what we pay today.