Less Crime, Lower Costs: The Smart-on-Crime Approach

We can have lower crime rates, a less expensive criminal justice system, and more humane criminal justice policies. This was the message of a summit convened by Representative Robert Scott of Virginia on March 3rd. Representative Scott brought together a panel of researchers, advocates and criminal justice professionals to highlight smart-on-crime approaches to crime prevention, sentencing and ex-offender reentry. Representatives Patrick J. Kennedy of Rhode Island and John Conyers Jr. of Michigan were also present to show their support for smart-on-crime approaches.

The U.S. criminal justice system is without a doubt the least effective and most expensive criminal justice system among advanced countries. Our incarceration rate is about seven times the rate of other advanced countries. One might think that with this extraordinarily high incarceration rate we would have a relatively low crime rate. This is not the case. We have a slightly above average overall crime rate among advanced nations. In other words, most of the Western developed world has policies that produce both less crime and less incarceration than in the United States. Our tough-on-crime approach has succeeded in providing us with the worst possible outcomes. Although the tough-on-crime approach has failed us for more than three decades, we continue to think that if we become even tougher on crime we will somehow produce different results.

The panelists assembled by Representative Scott showed clearly that there is a better way: smart-on-crime. What smart-on-crime means is that, as a first step, we need to increase our use of scientifically-proven programs that prevent individuals from ever beginning involvement in crime. If we prevent people from ever committing crime, there are fewer crime victims, lower criminal justice costs and more people working instead of languishing in prisons. A society with fewer criminals—not more inmates—is the absolute best for everyone.

Brian Bumbarger of the Prevention Research Center at Penn State University presented the audience with a menu [PDF] of rigorously-evaluated programs that prevent youth from engaging in criminal activity. Big Brothers/Big Sisters reduces youths’ likelihood of becoming involved in crime and increases student test scores. For a societal standpoint, when the criminal-justice savings are factored in, any investment in Big Brothers/Big Sisters ultimately pays for itself. The Nurse-Family Partnership program targets at-risk pregnant mothers for prenatal health care and for personal-development and parenting-skills training. This program reduces the likelihood of substance abuse and child abuse by the mother and dramatically improves child outcomes. For every dollar invested in this program, the societal financial benefit is over $3. It was mentioned at the summit that many youth in foster care end up in prison. But when foster care is paired with effective treatment programs through Multidimensional Treatment Foster Care the likelihood of a child in foster care becoming involved in crime is significantly reduced. For every dollar spent on this program, the societal benefit is more than $11. These are just a few of the options we have if we ever decide that we are serious about reducing crime and saving money.

The better an ex-offender reintegrates into mainstream society, the more likely the person is to give up on criminal activities permanently. Unfortunately, as part of our tough-on-crime mentality, we continue to devise ways to prevent the formerly incarcerated from living normal lives. Even after an individual has done the time for a particular crime, we find ways to punish them over and over again. At the summit, Margaret Love of the American Bar Association reported on an over-200-page report [PDF] which documents all of the federal laws and regulations that limit the access of people who have paid their debt to society to housing, voting, employment and social benefits. These tough-on-crime policies ultimately work to increase crime by preventing the reintegration of the formerly incarcerated.

One of the most important things to keep someone who was incarcerated from re-offending is a job. The Eastern District of Missouri has redefined the role of probation officers as Doug Burris, the chief probation officer, reported. In that district, the probation officers actively assist the formerly incarcerated in finding work. The officers have been highly successful at finding ex-offenders work and keeping them from re-offending. An evaluation of the Eastern District's program found that while the recidivism rate was 68 percent nationally, it was only 15 percent in the Eastern District. Jobs fight crime.

Representative Scott has done the country a service by highlighting the work of many people who are developing smart-on-crime strategies. These strategies will make our communities safer and save us money—if we ever manage to wean ourselves off of the failed tough-on-crime approach.