It is no secret that the criminal justice system is busting at the seams, and ultimately perpetuating a continuous cycle of mass incarceration. Due to the drastic increase in the national prison population, the country is beginning to carry a heavier financial burden. The public funds required to house and supervise people behind bars could be used more effectively in other areas of society such as education, job training, and diversion programs. In 2011, over 2.2 million people or 1 in 107 adults, were incarcerated in prisons or jails across the U.S. Another 4.8 million, or 1 in 50 adults were under supervision on probation or parole that year 1*. In an estimated total, nearly seven million Americans are under correctional or other criminal justice supervision. The amount of money spent by the United States on correction and community supervision such as parole and probation has almost quadrupled over the last twenty years 2*. The harsh punishment of prison for low-level offenses has proven to be ineffective in rehabilitating offenders. The portion of individuals returning to prison within the three-year period following their release has remained consistently above 40-50% for decades 3*. A greater attempt needs to be made to divert or channel low-level offenders away from the criminal justice system, so as to provide them with an alternative to prosecution. Mass incarceration has become a serious problem for this country, the number of people under correctional or criminal justice supervision in the U.S. far exceeds the entire general population in each of 38 different states 4*. If more preventative measures are not taken to reduce these growing statistics the results could prove to be catastrophic to the outcome of this nation as a whole. In this case, the most plausible solution would be to implement criminal justice programs geared towards re-socializing low level offenders back into society as productive members.
The problem that we are facing as a nation is the socio-economic impact of mass incarceration due to the lack of criminal justice diversion program implementation. According to the Maryland Division of Correction, the average annual cost to house an inmate in one of our state prisons is $38,654. The average yearly cost for an individual to participate in a community diversion program ranges from $2,000 – $5,000. Throughout the United States, these programs have shown to be effective at rehabilitating at risk individuals, reducing the spending of taxpayer dollars, lowering the prison population and increasing public safety 5*. This problem is of great significance to the American public as a whole because 1). The consequence of not having diversion programs means higher taxes being allocated for public safety, 2). The increase in non-rehabilitated individuals being released back into society, and 3). The reduction in quality of life for low-level offenders who will be stigmatized and discriminated against within society because of their convictions. This is not the type of problem that can be ignored or avoided, the effects of mass incarceration spread far and wide among the American public, and the ramifications for not addressing it in an efficient and effective manner will prove to be detrimental to the stability of the nation. So, with this in mind it seems evident that some kind of immediate action must be taken to preserve the well-being and best interests of the American public, or unfortunately suffer the consequences that inaction will surely bring. Mass incarceration is a social and economic strain on the county and must be combated to reduce the negative impact that it has on the nation.
The solution to reducing mass incarceration is simple; take preventative measures to reduce the number of criminal justice populations across the country by developing and implementing diversion programs. The goals of these diversion programs should include and consider public safety, reducing pressure on booking/holding in jail, identifying treatment needs of individuals (substance use disorders/mental health issues), reducing court docket pressure, reducing court and jail expense, maximizing prosecution resources for more serious offenses, addressing the basic needs of individuals reducing recidivism, and supervision with rehabilitation oriented practice. These goals can best be carried out by developing and implementing diversion programs that provide public crisis intervention, immediate diversion to behavioral health services, referrals to community services, individualized conditions for success/failure, justice accountability, and clear rewards/sanctions. These alternative measures are far more cost-effective than those of the traditional criminal justice system 6*.
- Pre-booking diversion in Seattle’s LEAD program lead to 60% less recidivism in the first 6 months compared to a control group, as well as statistically significant reductions in criminal justice, legal system, and other costs 7*.
- Pretrial diversion services in Kentucky have saved millions of dollars in incarceration costs and have reduced burden on court docket. The state observed a 71% rate of non-recidivism for its misdemeanor diversion programs and notes that defendants completed tens of thousands of community service hours and paid tens of thousands of dollars in restitution to victims 8*.
- Testing, sanctioning and treatment are effective at reducing drug use and drug related crime recidivism, and are also cost-effective. A study evaluating “Breaking the Cycle”, a drug court program utilizing these strategies, found the following positive results among participants: reduction of drug use in two of three sites, reduction in drug sales and possession offences, reduction in family problems in all sites. A cost benefit analysis also showed this approach saved $2.30 to $5.70 for every dollar invested 9*.
The United States is currently in the damage control phase and trying to maintain stability in the overwhelming reality of mass incarceration. With the prison population within this country constantly growing at a rapid pace, it is obvious that the issue of maintenance will continue to be a serious problem and continue to have dire effects on the American people. We need to stop waiting by while these kinds of problems arise and focus on how we can prevent them from occurring or spiraling out of control. Criminal Justice Diversion Programs serve as a healthy and productive alternative to incarceration, parole or probation for misdemeanor or other low-level offenses. These programs have proven to be cost-effective and beneficial for all parties involved including the community at large. So why not invest in something that is clearly more conducive to the nation as a whole. If these programs were developed and implemented on a greater scale, the results would have a greater impact on criminal prevention.
1). Glaze L. E., & Parks, E. (2012). Correctional Population in the United States, 2011 (NCJ239972). Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice.
2). Henrichson, C., & Delaney, R (2012). The Price of Prisons: What Incarceration Costs Taxpayers. New York: Vera Institute of Justice, Center on Sentencing and Corrections.
3). Langan, P.A., & Levin, D. J. (2002) Recidivism of Prisoners Released in 1994 (NCJ193427). Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice; And Pew Center on the States. (2011). State of Recidivism: The Revolving Door of America’s Prisons. Washington, DC: The Pew Charitable Trusts.
4). The Long Reach of American Corrections (2009). Data from Bureau of Justice Statistics Correctional Populations in the United States, 2011 and the Census Bureau (2012).
5). Del. Aisha Braveboy, a Democrat, Represents District 25 in Prince Georges County.
6). A national survey of Criminal Justice Diversion Programs and Initiatives.
7). Collins, S., Lonczak, H., & Clifasefi, S. (2015, March), LEAD Program Evaluation: Recidivism Report, Harm Reduction Research and Treatment Lab, University of Washington –Harborview Medical Center.
8). American Bar Association Criminal Justice Section State Policy Implementation Project. Pretrial Release Reform.
9). Harrell, A., Mitchell, O., Merill J., & Marlowe, D. (2003, February). Evaluation of breaking the cycle Retrieved from http://www.urban.org/research/publication/evaluation-breaking-cycle.