While some states are moving forward, spurred by budgetary constraints to make progressive changes in criminal justice policies, other states lag behind, holding tightly to the “tough on crime” mentality. While Wisconsin is historically of the latter group, advocates are hoping a recently released study from California-based Human Impact Partners will be the push lawmakers need to see that change can be good.
Already being blasted as “soft on crime”, the study suggests reducing the reliance on incarceration and instead focusing on treatment and community corrections. By instead sending offenders into mental health and drug treatment programs, for instance, the study says the state could save millions and reduce recidivism.
According to the Journal Sentinel:
Wisconsin incarcerates more than 22,000 people a year, up from about 7,000 in 1990 and more than double the number imprisoned in Minnesota, according to the Department of Corrections. And it has another 67,000 ex-offenders on probation and parole. The corrections budget has ballooned since 1990 from under $200 million a year to $1.3 billion in 2011, now surpassing the money spent on the University of Wisconsin system.
And, as in other states, the incarceration push is damaging minority communities worst of all—with African Americans accounting for 51% of the prison population but only 6% of the general population of the state.
So, what’s the solution? A major paradigm shift. No longer can the state rely on prison to “fix” crime. It doesn’t work. Instead, it perpetuates crime and is a self-feeding machine.
The Human Impact Partners study says that an investment of $75 million into treatment and alternative courts could cut annual prison admissions by about 40% and jail admissions by 21,000. It could also cut recidivism rates by 12-16% and cut crime by an estimated 20%.
It would make mental health treatment and drug and alcohol treatment available to thousands who need it, helping them to live a crime-free life. Perhaps most importantly, it would keep nonviolent offenders within the community, helping them to be productive members of society, working, and contributing. This, they say, would even reduce the number of children placed in foster care every year.
So, what’s the downside? Well, the upfront cost is glaring to many lawmakers and taxpayers alike. But when you compare the cost of incarceration to the cost of treatment, this initial cost is nothing compared with what will be saved. And the “soft on crime” argument is played out. There is no evidence that being “tough” (when it includes lengthy prison sentences) is any more effective than treatment. Actually, there is evidence to the contrary.