The Magazine

Free at Last

What will happen as large numbers of ex-cons are released from prison?

Sep 9, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 48 • By ELI LEHRER
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JOE ARPAIO, sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona, has some interesting ideas about running prisons: His inmates sleep in tents in the desert, work on chain gangs when they misbehave, wear pink underwear, and eat green baloney sandwiches that cost less than dog food. Smoking, skin mags, and coffee are banned. Cellblock televisions show nothing but educational programs and weather reports. As Arpaio is fond of saying, the Maricopa prison system, which serves the city of Phoenix, runs on the principle of "zero tolerance for the criminal element."

Yet if the effectiveness of punishment is judged by its ability to stop people from repeating bad behavior, Arpaio's vastly popular efforts (he has an 85 percent approval rating with local voters) haven't been a huge success. While Arpaio has been an excellent law enforcer and runs an effective anti-drug program in his correctional system, a 1998 Arizona State University study commissioned by the sheriff himself found that his trademark harsh measures had no effect on recidivism.

It's difficult to argue with Arpaio's desire to punish prisoners: Most people behind bars have done terrible things. But today's prisons--even supposedly tough ones like those in Maricopa County--do little to break criminals of the behavior that got them into trouble in the first place. All around America, just-released thugs step off of Greyhound buses and pick up their criminal careers where they left off. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, over 70 percent of robbers and nearly 80 percent of car thieves commit the same crimes again within three years of release. Overall, two-thirds of ex-cons are re-arrested within two years of release. Charles Colson, the former Nixon aide who founded the Prison Fellowship, sums up the situation best: "Instead of rehabilitating offenders, [the correctional system] debilitates them."

Almost 600,000 people (an all-time record) left prison in 2001. The flip side of the growing prison populations of the last two decades--the incarceration rate more than tripled between 1980 and 2000--will be a growing number of released prisoners in the decade ahead. Their future is not bright. "The people being released from prison today are, on the whole, disconnected from their communities and have spent longer times behind bars," says Jeremy Travis, an Urban Institute fellow who studies prisoner reentry.

As Travis and others point out, increased numbers of released criminals don't translate directly into rising crime rates. America's prisons released more prisoners every year in the past decade, as crime rates entered their sharpest dive on record. Crime is lower than it has been since the mid-1960s. But a return to the level of civic peace our grandparents enjoyed will require a serious effort to cut recidivism.

Some tough-sounding moves actually make things easier on criminals. Abolishing parole--a quick and dirty route to longer sentences that many state legislatures followed in the 1980s--often made things worse. Thanks to time off for "good behavior," prisoners can still get out after serving a fraction of their sentences. Time-off policies, in any case, simply require prisoners to avoid insubordination, violence, and theft while in prison. Parole requires that prisoners actually improve themselves through educational programs and work.

While more research remains to be done, states like Vermont that have retained traditional parole do have slightly lower recidivism rates than the rest of the country. Rather than abolishing parole, it might have been better for states to increase sentences honestly. After all, letting a prisoner know that he can get out after two years of a six-year sentence if he earns an associate's degree is better for him and society at large than having him slack off and be released for "good behavior" after serving half of a "no parole" four-year sentence.

So if many supposedly tough policies don't work as advertised, what does? There's no pat answer--society is best off if some offenders live out their lives behind bars--but, since over 90 percent of those now incarcerated will eventually get out, breaking prisoners of their bad habits should be the priority.

THE BEST SINGLE LESSON for prison reform comes from the great social policy success of the last decade: welfare reform. Since 1996, welfare policy in most states has focused on getting welfare recipients to work. Even before reforms actually went into effect, men and women on the dole began scrambling for jobs. Since 1996, welfare rolls have declined by more than half and, just as important, members of the nation's underclass acquired the disciplined habits of working-class America. They learned how to be on time, take direction from bosses, and dress suitably for work. As productive wage earners rather than beneficiaries of state largess, they also earned a well-deserved measure of self-respect.