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An opportunity to reform the criminal justice system

Sen. James Webb's bill could help make the case for treating and rehabilitating nonviolent offenders

January 20, 2010|By Harry K. Wexler

In its Jan. 17 editorial, “A poor prison plan for California” and several other articles, The Times has detailed some of the long-standing problems in the American criminal justice system. As a member of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's prison reform strike team in 2007 and '08, I had a firsthand look at how the system is rife with inequities and in many ways dysfunctional.

Most experts would agree that the system generally fails on half its mission -- rehabilitating offenders -- and is only partially successful in the other half of preserving public safety. I say partially successful because very few inmates escape but far too many (about 50% to 75%) wind up back behind bars after their release.

These issues have been reported on many times in the media, yet in recent years there hasn't been any comprehensive response at the federal level. A proposal by Sen. James Webb (D-Va.) could bring forth that response, however. The bill (S 714) would authorize a national criminal justice commission to review system dysfunctions, document what works and make recommendations for reform. The proposed commission is a historic opportunity that should not be missed.

The two most critical problems include the incarceration of nonviolent offenders -- primarily drug abusers (many with associated mental health disorders) -- and the lack of meaningful rehabilitation, which contributes to very high recidivism rates. Basically, we are endangering public safety by imprisoning many nonviolent individuals -- who would be better served at lower cost in the community -- while limiting space for violent criminals who should be incarcerated.

Despite the aforementioned challenges, substantial progress has been made. The National Institute on Drug Abuse has been especially active in supporting research, producing a body of solidly replicated findings about drug treatment within the criminal justice system. The Center for Substance Abuse Treatment has supported many effective interventions.

Most professionals in the field agree that, based on available research, workable solutions are available. For example, researchers have demonstrated that a well-designed prison program with aftercare can reduce recidivism by about 50% up to five years after release. Other research has shown that diversion of nonviolent first-time offenders can be highly effective in reducing crime and substance abuse, and that very few first-time offenders who are initially diverted then go on to prison. As we all know, prison often teaches minor offenders who could have been diverted to become chronic recidivists.

Thus, a good case can be made for reconsidering who goes to prison and for providing effective rehabilitation to those who do.

The Senate bill identifies a number of problems that need to be addressed by the commission. Consider the following data cited by the legislation:

* The United States has the highest reported incarceration rate in the world.

* Minorities make up a disproportionately large share of prison populations.

* There are 7.3 million Americans incarcerated or on probation or parole, equal to one in every 31 adults, an increase of 290% since 1980.

* On average, two out of every three released prisoners will be rearrested, and one in two will return to prison within three years of release.

* Corrections expenditures compete with and diminish funding for education, public health, public safety, parks and recreation, and programs specifically designed to reduce the prison population.

* Despite high incarceration rates for drug-related offenses, illicit drugs remain consistently available.

* Treating addiction will significantly help decrease demand.

* Drug offenders in prisons and jails have increased 1,200% since 1980, and a significant percentage of these offenders have no history of violence or high-level drug selling activity.

* Prisons and jails nationwide have become holding facilities for the mentally ill, about 73% of whom suffer from a substance-abuse disorder.

The commission could address these issues head-on. Its review of the criminal justice system and relevant research would include looking at how other Western countries handle crime, punishment and rehabilitation. The commission would be funded for 18 months and be responsible for producing detailed findings, conclusions and recommendations to Congress and the president.

At this juncture there are many reasons to believe that we can make reform work instead of continuing to incarcerate nonviolent offenders. Unless we stop our overreliance on severe laws and fundamentally reform the system, we risk sacrificing our educational system and other important social institutions to fund the continual expansion of our prisons.

Harry K. Wexler has been researching substance-abuse treatment and policy for four decades and has directed projects that helped establish prison treatment programs in 20 states.

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