Updated: Mar 29, 2022
There’s a crisis in our country. And most of us have no idea it’s even happening.
At its heart, recidivism is a person’s tendency to relapse into a previous condition or mode of behavior, especially a relapse into criminal behavior. When it comes to criminal justice in the United States, for a long time, and largely is the case still today, penal codes are focused far more on punishment. When stepping away from the real world, it makes sense as a thought experiment — any rational human being would steer clear from crime altogether if the punishments are harsh enough. In the mind and on paper, this concept seems to make sense.
Unfortunately, the Bureau of Justice’s data paints a completely different picture.
After decades of harsh punishments, extreme mandatory minimum sentences for first-time offenders, and a whole host of other issues, the reality is more complicated.
For one, you would expect someone who has endured incarceration to understand the penalties of committing a crime. But, a 2018 study update by the Bureau of Justice shows us that, on the state level, five out of six prisoners released ended up re-offending and going back to jail within nine years of release.
On the surface, this might seem like prison is insufficient — and we’ll dig into that. But what the numbers miss are people trying to live their lives within a broken system. We face a mental health crisis like none other, as state budgets for caring for the mentally ill have been slashed to the bone.
The problem is that when you try to break someone and take away every other option available to them, the likelihood that they will end up where they started increases exponentially. But just how did we get here?
Although recidivism has always been an issue, its explosion since the 80s and 90s in the US is unprecedented anywhere else in the world. To begin with, our incarceration rate is the highest on the planet. Countries like Iran, China, and Russia — nations synonymous in the US with draconian, authoritarian police states — all incarcerate a smaller percent
age of their populations than the US does, and by a rate of about 7%.
With a population of incarcerated individuals that is this high, it isn’t surprising that we also run into such trouble with prisoners ending up back in the system. And, although there are several programs over the years which have helped in some cases, there isn’t nearly enough funding headed to those programs to actually make a dent in the problem.
There are several factors that put us here. Likely the most significant contributing factor to this reality is the practice of extreme mandatory minimum sentences that have criminalized drugs nearly among racial and ethnic lines based on consumption. For instance, with crack cocaine — which for decades has been targeted towards poorer and minority populations — you find that the mandatory minimum is significantly higher than its more potent powdered form, which is mainly consumed by wealthier white people. Same drug, same crime, different punishment. That’s fundamentally un-American.
What mandatory minimums do is take the power out of the people’s hands. Before mandatory minimum laws were so prevalent, a jury would decide guilt or innocence, and then mete out justice in the form of punishment if the defendant is guilty. In some instances, the judge would determine the punishment, based on the severity of the offense and the criminal history of the defendant.
The Hands of the People
What mandatory minimum laws do is take the power out of our hands and instead make the government the sole arbiter of justice. They tell us that a duly sworn judge and jury are incapable of using their own reason to determine the merits of a case, and whether or not a 17-year-old first-time offender with no criminal history should be locked up for twenty years. Unfortunately, this is where recidivism begins — long before the inmate has even gone to prison for the first time.
The facts stand that, in this instance of a 17-year-old being caught with crack cocaine, getting tried as an adult, and getting sent to jail for decades, it’s extremely likely that if they were not a hardened career criminal before going to prison, they will likely exit the system as one. The harsher the conditions of that youth’s confinement, the more likely this outcome.
Numerous studies have demonstrated that the harsher a prisoner’s term is, the more likely that they will re-offend later, even for those who have committed the same or similar crimes.
So those mandatory minimum laws, while well-intended when they were passed, have actually contributed to the problem of recidivism. And, in doing so, they have taken a fundamental piece of our Bill of Rights and thrown it out the window. Intended as a check on government power and overreach, the Sixth Amendment of the Constitution provides for a jury of one’s peers in order to determine a consensus for guilt and innocence, as well as punishment in many cases. Mandatory minimums end up being government overreach, yet juries are powerless to stop it. This is where the system starts to break before the prisoner can even re-offend.
The Financial Burden of Recidivism
According to the Bureau of Prisons, in 2017 it cost over $36,000 per year to house each inmate. Some people argue that this is because prison is “too nice” and that prisoners get too many privileges like television and the commissary. But as we’ve gone over already, the harsher the prison conditions and term, the higher the likelihood of recidivism. So basically, by making prison even more hellish than it already is, it won’t save money in the long run — rather, it will just ensure that the yearly cost is spent for the remainder of an inmate’s life.
Running the Numbers
Let’s take a scenario where the US taxpayers pay less for incarceration, thus making a sentence harsher.
Take an adult male with a ten-year prison sentence at a reduced $20,000 per year. The US taxpayer would spend $200,000 incarcerating that individual. He is not paying taxes on real income (prison income is criminally low, thus the taxes paid minor, if at all), he is not contributing to society in terms of purchasing goods and services, raising children, etc. And, once the ten years are up, he will go back into society without marketable skills or education, meaning that his likelihood of getting gainful employment is extremely low. More likely than not, this ex-con will recede into a life of crime. He has no other options to live. Thus, he will likely commit another crime and then cost taxpayers an additional $100-200,000 over another 5-10 year prison term, if not for life.
Now, let’s take that same individual, and instead of stripping him of all privileges, we keep them, even at the cost of $36,000 per year. Instead of being harsher, we ensure that he leaves prison with a useful associate’s degree, and with good behavior, moves from a medium-security prison to a halfway house with gainful employment after 3 years, where he works, pays rent and taxes, is involved in the local community, and is getting his life on track for success. Instead of the $200,000 and likely more that would cost the US, he is instead only costing $108,000 — significantly less and with a likely outcome of being a productive member of society.
A Path Forward
As a nation, we have to educate one another on this issue. It’s far more complicated than “lock them up and throw away the key.” Recidivism surrounds a lot of other issues as well, from healthcare to education, access to opportunity and upward mobility, and a whole host of other factors.
FRIEND A FELON'S goal is to beat recidivism, to make sure that those who do commit crimes pay their debt to society, but are also set up for success when they leave prison so that we never have to incarcerate them again.
At the end of the day, making prison worse and cheaper in the short term is extremely fiscally irresponsible. This shows just how much more cost-effective it is to focus on eliminating recidivism than to simply push for harsher punishments. It’s better for the prisoner, it’s better for their families, it’s better for communities, and it’s better for taxpayers. But it’s going to take a lot of work.