Collision Course Prison Options Gaining Favor Alternatives Offer Ways To Reduce High Cost Of Incarceration
Jon Caulkins likens drug treatment for criminals to playing the lottery.
“You don’t get a payoff every time,” said Caulkins, who teaches public policy in Pittsburgh. But “when you get a payoff, it is the jackpot.”
Everything is a gamble when it comes to keeping society safe from criminals. Studies prompted in part by rising prison costs point to no magic bullets among the alternatives.
But two new developments show that spending more on alternatives might be more cost-effective than prisons. First, a University of Maryland study says prisons are filling up with people who probably won’t commit crimes again. Second, alternatives work just as well when it comes to keeping many criminals in line - for less money.
Neil D. Sinclair is one of about 1,200 Idaho felons serving time in alternative programs. It costs taxpayers only $10 per day to keep him under intense supervision, compared with $47 a day to house each of Idaho’s 4,000 prison inmates.
“I used to think everything consisted of getting a bag of weed,” Sinclair, 20, said from the doorstep of his mother’s Lewiston home. “My life used to revolve around drugs, and it doesn’t anymore.”
Convicted of eluding a police officer, Sinclair was placed on intensive supervision after 90 days in jail.
He must stay at home when he’s not in counseling or working as a waiter. He must check in once a day with his probation officer, who can make unannounced visits.
Sinclair can’t wait for January and regular probation - a less restrictive method of tracking 5,000 Idaho felons at a cost of $3 each per day. But he concedes that intensive supervision has forced him to change his ways, enabling him to pay his fines and have money left for his car.
Idaho leaders are looking at routing offenders away from prison and at how the state prepares its inmates for the day they’ll be released. The reason is cost: Prisons are getting a bigger share of state spending while the share for higher education shrinks.
“I believe we need to get more creative,” Gov. Phil Batt said. He noted the number of inmates with drug problems, up to 80 percent by state estimates. “It tells me we need more halfway houses and more probation officers.”
Idaho already has cheaper options than prison. They include intensive supervision, electronic monitoring, work centers, day check-in centers, boot camps and drug treatment programs. The question, said criminal justice professor Lawrence Travis, is what Idahoans want to buy.
“We need to think, ‘What is the best use of this space?”’ said Travis, of the University of Cincinnati. “Who should we send there and why are we sending them to prison?”
Although prisons are where Idaho spends most taxpayer dollars - $60 million out of a $69 million Correction Department budget - state residents favor alternatives.
And some alternatives are in the works. The state is contracting with a private company to build and run the next prison.
Idaho will pay Corrections Corp. of America $38.40 per day for each inmate, compared with $47 per day in a state-run prison. But the main advantage for Idaho is that the company can build the 1,250-bed lockup, expandable to 3,000 beds, for $49 million. That’s $20 million less than if the state did the work.
Idaho also is embracing alternative sentencing programs. “Anybody in corrections that doesn’t believe in alternative methods is in the dark ages,” said Don Tamblyn, a rehabilitation specialist at the prison in Boise.
“Prisons don’t have any curative or restorative effect at all,” said Barton Parks, a professor of criminal justice at Guilford University in Greensboro, N.C.
“You lock a dog in a pen and kick him around for a month or two and then let the dog out. Then what would happen? That is what happens in a prison.”
Some studies temper the enthusiasm for alternatives. A 1996 U.S. Bureau of Justice Assistance report said many programs have not met expectations in reducing prison costs, crowding or re-offending rates.
Other studies show signs of hope. The University of Maryland report was ordered by Congress to measure the effectiveness of the more than $3 billion in federal grants awarded to help communities prevent crime.
Idaho is using many of the programs evaluated in the study. Some allow offenders to live at home and some require they be kept in state custody. Here’s a summary of how they’re working:
Intensive supervision. About 70 percent of the 240 prisoners in intensive supervision successfully move on to regular probation and only 3 percent commit a new crime.
Electronic monitoring. Offenders wear neck or wrist bracelets. When they wander beyond a certain perimeter, they trigger an alarm that informs probation officers.
The average daily cost for electronic monitoring in Idaho is about $7 per person. An estimated 70 percent of the participants have successfully completed the program.
Day reporting centers. Offenders check in each morning for two to four months to get help preparing for employment, as well as drug abuse counseling and life skills training. Idaho operates day reporting centers in Caldwell, Idaho Falls and Twin Falls for about 60 offenders. Little research on effectiveness has been done because the concept is new.
Drug courts. Now in session in 40 states, including Washington, these courts generally consist of a judge, prosecutor and drug counselor. Those convicted of drug offenses are diverted into treatment programs, monitored by the court, instead of sentenced to jail or prison. Research on drug courts is promising, according to the Maryland study.
Community work centers. Felons live and undergo treatment at these centers and hold down jobs as they prepare for transition back into society. Idaho has community work centers in Boise, Idaho Falls, Nampa and Twin Falls. The state plans to build another one south of Boise and contract with private companies to develop centers in North Idaho.
Boot camp. Offenders go through an intensive 180-day program at the North Idaho Correctional Institution in Cottonwood. Mainly young, first-time felons, they are subjected to a military-style program at an average cost of $36.26 per day.
Corrections officials say the boot camp has reduced the rate of repeat offending by 10 percent. Gov. Batt wants to save money by cutting the cycle to 120 days.
But the Maryland report found no significant difference in re-offending rates between those sent to boot camps and those who either served out their sentences in prison or were released on probation.
Idaho has landed a three-year, $600,000 federal grant to teach life skills to half of the inmates at the Cottonwood camp and compare their re-offending rates with the other half.
Drug treatment. Research shows drug treatment, inside or outside prison, can reduce re-offending rates by 10 to 20 percent.
Idaho’s Correction Department estimates more than 80 percent of its inmates have a drug problem. Yet fewer than half the offenders each year get any treatment.
Nearly one in five Idaho inmates is behind bars for drug crimes, making them the biggest category of offenders.
The Correction Department plans to establish a parole violator center that would keep about 100 drug users out of prison by requiring a heavy dose of counseling and treatment.
Money for the project would come from the federal government, the source of most funding for drug and alcohol treatment.
The Correction Department also hopes to do more to prepare prisoners for the day they’ll be released.
Mental health programs are one priority. Of 590 inmates at the prison, 160 are considered “mental health inmates” in need of treatment.
“More and more, we’re seeing sicker guys coming in,” said Pam Sonnen, deputy prison warden.
For example, the most frequent reason listed for revoking exercise privileges at the Boise prison is hurling urine or feces at guards.
The department emphasizes treatment and training for all inmates during their last 18 months in custody, as well as follow-up care for those on parole, said Eugene Larson, the community services administrator. The average sentence for Idaho inmates is 40 months.
Before they leave, they are drilled on filling out job applications, maintaining checkbooks, how to enter Alcohol Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous, how to find welfare programs and what to expect when they walk through the prison gate.
“Ninety-five percent of the people who go to prison get out,” Larson said. “People forget that statistic. We should do a better job of preparing them for release.”
MEMO: Michael R. Wickline is a staff writer for The Lewiston Morning Tribune.
The following fields overflowed: BYLINE = Michael R. Wickline Lewiston Morning Tribune
Ken Miller of The Idaho Statesman and Mike Barenti of The Post-Register in Idaho Falls contributed to this report.
Michael R. Wickline is a staff writer for The Lewiston Morning Tribune.
The following fields overflowed: BYLINE = Michael R. Wickline Lewiston Morning Tribune Ken Miller of The Idaho Statesman and Mike Barenti of The Post-Register in Idaho Falls contributed to this report.