Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Crime, punishment, and state budgets

Governor Doyle's proposal to reduce the state corrections budget by allowing for early release of some inmates has been controversial, with some law enforcement officials concerned about the message early release sends to would-be criminals, while others note the potential cost savings that can accrue from having fewer inmates.

The debate to date has mostly focused on public safety and the extent to which the governor's budgetary savings estimates are accurate, yet has missed some crucial elements. While the governor and his corrections secretary emphasize that only low risk offenders would be eligible, there has not been much debate about who is truly "low risk." The assumption seems to be non-violent offenders, but research suggests that disqualifying all violent offenders, while politically prudent, may not be logical.

A 2002 report from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics found that recidivism is somewhat lower among violent offenders compared to non-violent offenders. The study looked at 272,111 convicts released in 1994 in 15 states and whether they were arrested again within the next three years. The three-year re-arrest rate for violent criminals was 61.7%, while the overall re-arrest rate was 67.5%.

According to the study:

Released prisoners with the highest rearrest rates were robbers (70.2%),
burglars (74.0%), larcenists (74.6%), motor vehicle thieves (78.8%), those in
prison for possessing or selling stolen property (77.4%), and those in prison
for possessing, using, or selling illegal weapons (70.2%). Released
prisoners with the lowest rearrest rates were those in prison for homicide
(40.7%), rape (46.0%), other sexual assault (41.4%), and driving under the
influence (51.5%).

One explanatory factor in this difference may be age. The BJS found that while 75% of released prisoners between ages 18 and 24 were arrested again, only 45% of those older than 45 were rearrested. Since violent offenders tend to be given longer sentences, if they also tend to be older at the time of release, that could explain the results.

Another explanatory factor is the number of previous arrests. Those offenders for whom there was no arrest record other than the crime for which they were convicted had a three-year recidivism rate of 40.6%. For each additional prior arrest, the recidivism rate grows, up to 82% for those with 16 or more arrests. The drug dealer or burglar with several arrests under his or her belt may be more likely to re-enter the criminal justice system than someone convicted of assault with no other criminal history.

A debate focused on both public safety and costs should weigh these findings and their implications for Wisconsin. But the debate must also consider the other purposes of incarceration: as punishment and as a deterrent. Is serving anything less than a full sentence acceptable? If so, is there a threshold that must be met before release can be considered?

If some kind of early release is acceptable, do we wish to maximize the cost savings that could accrue or is any level of savings sufficient? We must also weigh the desired level of savings against a potential risk to public safety. But with which aspects of public safety are we most concerned...personal safety? highway safety? keeping our children safe from drugs? keeping our homes safe? These are the types of questions with which we must grapple.

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