Protecting public safety while reducing the prison headcount

Ross Douthat asks the right question about de-carceration: how to do it while protecting public safety. I offer an answer: swift-certain-fair community supervision.

Three things to like about Ross Douthat’s Sunday column on incarceration:

1.  He starts in the right place: the sheer scale and horror of mass incarceration, especially as practiced in this country. (Douthat is right: by any reasonable definition, SuperMax is torture.)

2. He acknowledges the key fact: there aren’t enough harmless prisoners that releasing them would solve the problem. If we want to get to civilized levels of incarceration we need to let out some seriously guilty and possibly dangerous people.  Just to get back to the U.S. historical level – already about 50% above European rates – we would have to let out four out of five current inmates. That means freeing large numbers of armed robbers, rapists, and murderers.

3. And he asks the right question: how to do that without ending our twenty-year winning streak in crime reduction.

Fortunately, I think there’s an answer to that question: learning to manage offenders without putting them behind bars. The key to that – and, it turns out, to de-brutalizing the institutions themselves – is a system of rules and sanctions based on swiftness, certainty, and fairness.

The evidence for success in swift-certain-fair community corrections is pouring in. The next step is to extend it to the currently imprisoned population through some form of graduated re-entry. Since that’s a new idea, we can’t be sure in advance how well it would work, or which version of it would work best in any given population. But once you ask the right question – how to reduce incarceration while improving public safety – you’re well on the road to finding the right answer.

Footnote Douthat makes the implicit assumption that keeping someone who might commit crime behind bars naturally tends to reduce crime. That would be true if incarceration didn’t have criminogenic side-effects, both at the individual-offender level and the community level. But in fact it does, and as the scale of incarceration grows the crime-control benefits shrink (since you’re locking up less and less dangerous prople) while the costs grow. Useem and Piehl estimate that in the median state the marginal prisoner somewhat increases the crime rate. If this is right, then the first slice of de-carceration won’t come at any cost in the form of increased crime even if it’s not coupled with improved community supervision. But that surely wouldn’t be true of making the reductions we actually need to make in the prison headcount.

 

 

 

 

 

Why graduated re-entry isn’t just another halfway house

Graduated re-entry is just like a halfway house without the house, just as it’s a prison minus the prison.

Chris Ingraham at the Washington Post’s Wonkblog has an interesting take on the graduated re-entry idea.

Ingraham’s piece addresses an obvious question: isn’t graduated re-entry just a halfway house under another name?

The answer to that, as usual, is “Yes and no,” but in this case mostly “No.”

A halfway house is a correctional facility for people being released from prison or jail, or sometimes for people who have been convicted of something that the judge doesn’t want to jail them for but also doesn’t want them to walk away from entirely, even on probation. It’s a physical facility with an actual location: that is, it needs to be built, which means it needs to be sited, which means it has to deal with complaints from the neighbors to their elected officials. Who wants to live across the street from a mini-prison?

A physical building means full-time staffing. That costs money. And neither the building nor the staff disappears if the population shrinks, so creating a halfway house is a long-term fiscal commitment. In most jurisdictions, the houses aren’t public agencies; they’re run by non-profits, raising a host of issues about contracting, governance, and accountability, especially when the contractor is free to lobby and to make campaign contributions. (What the enthusiasts for “contracting-out” often miss is that managing a contractual relationship well is more demanding, in terms of public administration, than managing an agency directly. A jurisdiction that could run its own program tolerably well might be able to find contractor who could do it better; a jurisdiction too incompetent to run its own programs will generally find that the contractors do even worse, even if they’re not simply stealing the money. And no, having them be non-profits rather than for-profits doesn’t do much to solve that problem.)

A halfway house is also a correctional institution; it’s closed, even though it doesn’t have bars, and what me might call the “halfway-in-mates” are under institutional discipline, with staff telling them what to do. Moreover, they’re living with other offenders – not obviously the best way to encourage them to form useful pro-social relationship networks – in congregate housing. It’s better preparation for free life than a cellblock, but that’s about the all that you can say for it as a means of reducing “re-entry shock.”

In the graduated re-entry program that Angela Hawken, Ross Halperin, and I are trying to develop, there’s no single physical facility; instead, there are ordinary-looking apartments, rented from private landlords, scattered around the neighborhood. That doesn’t leave much of a target for the NIMBYs. Living in your own apartment is much more like real life than living in a halfway house. In particular, there’s no reason an ex-offender who graduates out of graduated re-entry couldn’t decide to keep paying rent on the same unit (while the program rents another unit for a new participant). That would make the transition from graduated re-entry to freedom virtually seamless, by contrast with the situation of someone who is released from a halfway house and immediately needs to find new housing.

Some successful halfway-house operations, such as Stefan LoBuglio’s Montgomery County Pre-Release Center, stress jobseeking, and the good results of those efforts gives us reason to think that the employment aspects of graduated re-entry could be made to work well. Others are combined with supported-work programs, though the evaluations of supported work for ex-offenders aren’t especially encouraging. But the combination we propose – close supervision, supported non-congregate housing, and supported work transitioning to non-supported work – is, as far as we know, original.

Compared to a good halfway house – and, again, not all of them are good – a graduate re-entry program might be less successful in delivering certain services (mental health, for example, or job-readiness) simply because all the subjects aren’t immediately available together. And for some participants the addition supervision by live staff and the presence of a ready-made social group might make halfway-house life easier than life on graduated re-entry. Indeed, LoBuglio, whose long experience in this business gives his opinion weight, doubts that graduated re-entry can be made to work. (Of course, in principle, you could do re-entry in phases, with the individual apartment being the next step after the halfway house.) 

But the key point about halfway houses is how few of them there are. I can’t find a number for the total halfway-house population at any one time, but the scattered numbers I’ve identified strongly suggest that the total is well south of 100,000. Expanding that, even substantially in percentage terms, wouldn’t put much of a dent in the 2.3 million Americans now behind bars.

I love pilot programs. But they’re only useful where they can, if successful, be brought up o the relevant scale. Otherwise you get a bunch of attractive but essentially irrelevant boutique programs, which has been the fate of the drug-court idea. Graduated re-entry, if it works, is scalable.

So yes, graduated re-entry is just like a halfway house, but without the house, in the same sense that it’s a prison but without the prison. Analogies can clarify, but they can also obscure.