Pubdate: Sat, 11 Feb 2006
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Page: A19
Copyright: 2006 The Washington Post Company
Author: David Farabee
Note: The writer is a research psychologist at UCLA and author of 
"Rethinking Rehabilitation: Why Can't We Reform Our Criminals?"
Bookmark: (Opinion)
Bookmark: (Sentencing - United States)
Bookmark: (Incarceration)
Bookmark: (Treatment)


This week a House subcommittee held hearings on a bill, the Second 
Chance Act, which is meant to deal with the problems that prisoners 
encounter on their reentry into society and also with their need for 
substance abuse treatment.

The concern over prisoners and recidivism is justified. Though 
national crime rates declined steadily over the past decade, the 
Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that the percentage of released 
prisoners re-arrested within three years increased from 62.5 percent 
in 1983 to 67.5 percent in 1994. And given that offenders are 
arrested for only a fraction of the crimes they commit, even this 
depressing statistic is an underestimate. Few would dispute that the 
correctional system must be changed. But how? 	

If history is any indication, state and federal correctional systems 
will be pressured to emphasize rehabilitation over justice, the 
former being an umbrella term that includes everything from 
psychodrama, social skills training and art therapy to college 
coursework and drug abuse treatment. Some psychologists have pointed 
to a series of large treatment initiatives in the United States over 
the past few years as evidence that the "pendulum" is swinging from 
punishment to treatment. These initiatives include California's 
Proposition 36, under which adults convicted of nonviolent drug 
possession offenses can choose community drug treatment in lieu of 
incarceration, and even the eventual decision by Gen. Barry 
McCaffrey, when he was the White House anti-drug czar, to 
de-emphasize interdiction of drugs in favor of treatment.

Over the past several years, a large segment of the public seems to 
have warmed to the idea. According to a national survey commissioned 
by the American Civil Liberties Union in 2001, 40 percent of 
Americans believe that the primary purpose of prison should be 
rehabilitation rather than punishment, deterrence or maintaining public safety.

As noble as this preference may be, it is based on the common 
misconception that effective rehabilitation programs exist and merely 
need to be expanded. Unfortunately, the reality is that most of the 
state and federally funded interventions in use have never been 
evaluated, and the few rigorous assessments that have been published 
in journals of psychology and criminology show that these traditional 
rehabilitation programs have no lasting effect.

As a psychologist who studies offender interventions, I hope that, as 
lawmakers begin to survey the evidence to inform their decisions, 
they will give attention to the data showing that the more certain an 
offender is that he will be caught and (swiftly) punished for the 
next crime he commits, the less likely he is to follow through on 
that criminal act. In fact, the certainty and swiftness of being 
caught and penalized appear to be more important than the severity of 
the punishment.

A 2002 study from the National Bureau of Economic Research sought to 
assess the link between increased felony and misdemeanor arrests in 
New York City in the 1990s and the substantial drop in crime during 
that period. The authors found that for every increase of one 
percentage point in arrests for various offenses there were the 
following declines in that offense: murder -- 0.6 percent; assault -- 
0.4 percent; burglary -- 3.1 percent; robbery -- 2.4 percent; and 
motor vehicle theft -- 5.9 percent. These findings held even after 
controlling for economic changes in New York over this period. The 
authors concluded that while both economic factors and deterrence are 
important in explaining the decline in crime in New York City, 
deterrence was more important.

The dramatic results seen in New York suggest that serious crime 
prevention can be achieved by increasing an offender's certainty that 
there will be negative consequences for committing criminal acts -- 
even low-level offenses. (In fact, a survey of arrestees in New York 
in the late 1990s showed that almost all were aware of the increased 
risks associated with committing a crime, and two-thirds cited 
increased police pressure as their reason for committing fewer crimes.)

It is an intervention of consequences and accountability rather than 
of social programs and therapy. And it may even be better suited as 
an approach to supervising known offenders (i.e., probationers and 
parolees) in the community than as a general crime prevention strategy.

Implementing effective reentry policies will require a shift in 
thinking and the resolve to make practical changes, such as reducing 
the size of probation and parole caseloads so that supervising 
officers can be effective monitors. Embracing new technologies could 
help -- for example, use of global positioning systems to enforce 
"exclusion areas," such as schools or the home or workplace of the 
parolee's victim, and requiring parolees to complete a three-year 
period of supervision without a single new offense.

Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), a sponsor of the Second Chance Act, 
correctly observed that the U.S. criminal justice system needs to be 
"reinvented." But there is nothing inventive about returning to the 
intuitively appealing programs that we correctly rejected 30 years 
ago. Tackling prisoner recidivism is a serious business requiring 
serious solutions, and it is unlikely to involve workbooks, videos or 
talk therapy.
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