I hear this question every time the topic of conversation turns to America's so-called mass incarceration, which is not an uncommon topic of conversation when you're running one of the largest prison systems in the country.
The answer to the question is actually simple: We chose to. We chose to respond to behavioral health issues with a punitive approach. We chose to extend sentences for violent crimes. We chose to fight the war on drugs on one front (enforcement), and ignore the other front (treatment), when clearly the response to the drug crisis requires a balanced attack.
And so instead of asking how we got here, we should be asking this: Do we collectively have the courage to change things?
If policymakers continue passing bills that increase both the number of people sent to prison and the length of time they spend there, the numbers of inmates and all the taxpayer costs associated with that growth will only escalate. Instead, we can reduce the numbers through investment in evidence-based policies, addiction treatment, and community re-entry programs.
A true justice system is one in which the response to a crime is equal to the crime. That response must also be the one most likely to yield the result we seek: That after contact with our system, the individual is less likely to commit another crime.
Which is why it's time my fellow correctional professionals and I stop calling ourselves "correctional" until we are all committed to creating an environment that is actually conducive to corrections, and where people can get well. "Care, Custody, and Control," three tenets in the corrections field, should be achieved as a logical result of professionals doing their jobs — they should not be the ultimate goal. Similarly, "Safe, Secure, and Humane Facilities" need to be the very least that we offer, not what we strive for.
Compare the medical field and the corrections field. There's an ample body of research in both. In the medical field, when supporting research indicates a practice is bad, the practice is changed. However, in corrections, when research indicates something is not a good practice, we say, "Well, we've always done it that way."
For their part, policymakers must stop using the façade of public safety to pass bad public policy.
For example, Hawaii has had tremendous success reducing the drug use of parolees through an approach called HOPE (Hawaii's Opportunity Probation with Enforcement). The HOPE model delivers swift and certain punishment for specifically identified inappropriate behavior among parolees, resulting in immediate but brief terms of incarceration — the length of stay is not the key factor. While some systems, including Washington state's, are beginning to replicate the HOPE model, most are reticent to embrace it despite its clear success.
For their part, policymakers must stop using the façade of public safety to pass bad public policy. We need to replace anecdote-driven measures — such as reacting to a single specific crime with a new law that widens the net well beyond the intended target — with research-based policies that identify a goal and have built-in mechanisms to collect data on the way to achieving that goal.
If our approach to crime is really about justice, initial sentences should include a finite path to automatic expungement of the person's record, putting an end to the burdens a criminal record places on people. At sentencing, when all the interested parties have the opportunity to be present and heard, a judge could sentence the accused to both a period of sanction and a timeframe after which, assuming the individual remains crime-free, his or her record will be presumptively expunged.
The cost of our flawed approach to crime is costing a lot more than tax dollars — it's costing lives. Not just the lives of those incarcerated, but also of their families and especially their children. I think of the trauma of the 81,000 kids in Pennsylvania who have a parent in a state prison. Many of these parents are incarcerated for non-violent offenses or technical parole violations, and they aren't watching their kids' football games, helping them with homework, or simply sharing a meal with them at the end of the day. What kind of future will their children have?
We must stop accepting and believing in the "tough on crime" knee-jerk laws that have cost Americans dearly for decades and will continue to do so for decades to come. And we cannot continue to condone corrections systems that deliver undesirable outcomes — or the collective lack of willpower to change them.
John Wetzel is Pennsylvania's secretary of corrections. Follow him on Twitter: @johnewetzel
Photo via Flickr