The new frontier of public safety.

AuthorEarley, Mark L.


In the 1980s and 1990s, as a Virginia State Senator and Attorney General, I believed in law and order. I still do. What I did not realize at the time is that there are two equally important aspects of public safety. First is getting the right people off the streets and behind bars. Second is providing opportunities for personal transformation to those behind bars so that when they return home they will not still pose a threat to public safety.

My approach at the time was biased towards the front end of the problem. I initiated or supported any bill that put more people behind bars and kept them there longer. I seldom voted against any crime bill. I was not alone. Legislators of all stripes at the state and federal level were getting tough on crime. As a result, the United States now incarcerates more people than any other nation in the world and at a higher per capita rate than any other nation in the world. (1) For a person who believes that less is more when it comes to government, I helped turn the correctional system into one of the biggest government programs in the world. According to a research report published in 2008 by the Pew Center on the States, one out of every thirty-one adults in the United States is locked up or on probation or parole. (2) Not only have we supersized government, we have fueled a system that does not work. Thousands of inmates are released every year in the United States and national studies show that more than half end up behind bars within three years. (3) Correctional systems are failing to "correct" the behavior of inmates. For the most part, they are simply warehousing them. After sweeping the streets clean of "criminals," inmates are now coming home in record numbers--but the public is not safe. Released inmates are reoffending at a rate of 50% (4) and creating more victims, eating up more taxpayer dollars, and adding fuel to bigger government.

The good news is that we can reduce the mass incarceration trend, advance public safety, shrink government, and save taxpayers dollars if we will begin to focus on providing meaningful opportunities for personal transformation to those behind bars who want to change their lives. This Article suggests that the key is not more money pumped into corrections for a few pilot programs--most of which are never brought to scale because of cost--but to unleash the power of partnerships between community-based organizations, volunteers, and departments of corrections. By allowing volunteers with community-based nonprofits unprecedented access to inmates to provide life-changing relationships, recidivism could be significantly reduced and public safety increased. Changing the system requires strong executive leadership in government and partnership with community-based nonprofits and volunteers who utilize evidence-based best practices for cognitive and life transformation and are held accountable for achieving the goal of lower recidivism.


    1. Loss of Human Capital and Freedom

      Prior to 1972, the prison population tended to grow at a steady rate that closely tracked growth rates in the general population. Beginning in 1973, the number of incarcerated Americans began to rise precipitously, due to legislation that stiffened sentencing and release laws and decisions by courts and parole boards that sent more offenders to prison and kept them there longer. (5) Also fueling the fire were the breakdown of family structure, particularly the growing absence of fathers, the proliferation of drugs, and the de-institutalization of the mentally disabled. The number of incarcerated drug offenders has soared 1,200% and the rate of mentally ill people in prisons rather than in mental health hospitals has quadrupled. (6)

      Today more than 2.3 million individuals are behind bars. With 5% of the world's population, the United States now houses 25% of the world's reported prisoners. (7) Today, a staggering 1 out of every 100 adults in our nation is behind bars. (8) Even more sobering, 1 out of every 31 adults is either behind bars or on probation or parole. (9)

      The demographic picture becomes more miserable: for the African American community, the growth in incarceration has been nothing short of catastrophic. Black adults are four times as likely as whites and nearly 2.5 times as likely as Hispanics to be under correctional control. One in eleven black adults--9.2%--is either behind bars or on probation or parole. (10)

    2. Wasteful Stewardship of Taxpayers' Money

      The increase in incarceration and stubborn recidivism rates result in a huge cost to the taxpayers: over $68 billion was spent on corrections in 2010. (11) Second only to Medicaid, spending on corrections has become the fastest growing general fund expenditure in the nation. (12) State spending on corrections has increased over $40 billion in the last 20 years, up over 30% in the past 10 years alone. (13) The current approach to incarceration is breaking the bank. If for no other reason, the stress on state budgets--in no small part due to burgeoning correctional system budgets--has finally captured the attention of policymakers and focused their efforts on the poor return they are getting for their dollars.

    3. Compromising Public Safety

      Indeed, if the billions spent nationwide ensured that prisoners would return to our neighborhoods in greater numbers as peaceful, productive, and law-abiding citizens, we might argue that it was money well spent. But according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, of the hundreds of thousands of inmates that leave prisons and return home, two-thirds will be rearrested and almost one-half re-incarcerated within three years. (14) Is it too much to suggest that prisons resemble graduate schools of crime more than places of correction and rehabilitation? With a 50% recidivism rate after three years, public safety is corroded on the back end of the criminal justice system.

      "What happens inside jails and prisons does not stay inside jails and prisons. It comes home with prisoners after they are released...." (15) Indeed, all too often inmates return home more criminally savvy and prepared to fail at real life than before they went in. No other enterprise could remain in business with such a dismal performance and return on investment. Yet, prisons seem to expand by failing.

      To ensure public safety, save taxpayers' dollars, and reverse the trend toward mass incarceration, we must start by seeking the transformation of individuals in prison to get them ready to come home. Departments of Corrections and Rehabilitation should be living up to their...

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