Fortunately, there is a way to deal with this influx safely and humanely. Over the past three decades, jurisdictions across the U.S. have ensured that only those who present a genuine threat to public safety fill prison beds, while those who can thrive with supervision and services in the community get the help they need. California officials can begin emulating three steps, starting immediately:
-- Statistical analysis has made it possible to accurately predict who is likely to commit new crimes and who isn’t. California officials, especially at the county level, should put in place risk assessment instruments based on this data to decide who needs to be held and who can be supervised safely in the community. Research has shown that overpunishing offenders who present little risk will in many cases turn them into real threats to public safety. Scarce taxpayer dollars need to be used explicitly for strategies and programs that we know will reduce crime, and not increase it.
-- Invest in a network of community-based services that can serve those released under supervision, including formerly incarcerated people. Workforce development programs or drug treatment can go a long way toward ensuring that people can remain safely in the community. For instance, in a multiyear evaluation of the Center for Employment Opportunities, a transitional jobs program for former prisoners based in New York City, the nonpartisan education and social policy research organization MDRC found significant drops in recidivism, with the strongest reductions for former prisoners who are at the highest risk.
-- Strapped local officials should resist the understandable temptation to use the money that accompanies redirected inmates and parolees for other needed programs, including general services that are being cut. Although public safety need not be as expensive as we currently make it, it can’t be done on the cheap. Besides, the Justice Reinvestment Initiative of the Department of Justice is designed to show that a shift in spending from incarceration to policies like those listed above actually makes communities safer.
As we argued elsewhere, one of the dangers of cost-oriented discourse is its fallacies in encouraging long-term health of the correctional system and its proclivity toward panicky, immediate solutions. The key to leveraging the cost argument to achieve correctional health is to think smarter, not faster.