Have prisons failed enough yet?

I think it was Winston Churchill who said that Americans can be depended upon to do the right thing, but only after exhausting all other alternatives. I wonder if we’re reaching the point of exhausting our over-reliance on prisons to reduce crime and enhance public safety.

Today the Pew Center on the States released a study that concludes “For the first time in history more than one in every 100 adults in America are in jail or prison—a fact that significantly impacts state budgets without delivering a clear return on public safety.” In addition, “One in every 31 U.S. adults is in the corrections system, which includes jail, prison, probation and supervision, more than double the rate of a quarter century ago.”

A few key points:

  • Last year alone, states spent more than $49 billion on corrections, up from $11 billion 20 years before.
  • However, the national recidivism rate remains virtually unchanged, with about half of released inmates returning to jail or prison within three years.
  • While violent criminals and other serious offenders account for some of the growth, many inmates are low-level offenders or people who have violated the terms of their probation or parole.

We continue to assert that restorative justice offers a viable, cost-effective alternative for many (but not all) offenders. Has the time finally come when we as a nation can be depended upon to do the right thing? Or have we not failed enough yet?

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