The costs of imprisonment

When I was involved in prison-reform efforts with ex-offenders, as an activist in courts and as a critic in articles and books decades ago, I was surprised to find that conservative judges were better at enforcing change than liberals. They were, it seemed, more comfortable exercising power once they were convinced of the injustices demonstrated.

That irony — one would presume that liberals were more humane — was apparent again recently when reports showed that conservative states had cut prison populations by way of programs diverting prisoners, in appropriate cases, to community-based programs rather than incarceration. The motives were founded on economic grounds; the costs of incarceration were escalating with no reduction in crime rates to warrant them. The wisdom of the result is more important than the ground for getting to it. So we should celebrate getting to a better place in the criminal justice system.

Reform in corrections historically has disappointed liberals. For example, prisons were originated at the urging of well-intended Quakers who were critical of the prevailing practices of corporal and capital punishments. Their idea was to reform offenders, to “correct” them, by enforcing their enlightenment through making them read the Bible in segregated imprisonment. Thus, reformatories were built, and froze the wisdom of those times for centuries — such as it was — despite the negative results of imprisonment. The idea was benign in concept but counterproductive in practice. We still make the same mistake, building new prisons which again freeze our options for centuries, and cost fortunes to do so. Leasing existing space would be far more economic, and correctible if change was required. Current reform efforts have led to closing one prison in Texas.

News and Pew Foundation reports this week demonstrate again that conservative motives can lead to enlightened correctional policies. Diversion programs, reformed sentencing, probation and parole policies all will save taxpayers money — and used wisely, they also make correctional sense. Texas, South Carolina, Kentucky, Arkansas and Ohio, all conservative states, have closed some of their prisons and saved taxpayers fortunes through creative alternatives, at no cost in raised crime rates.

Prisons should be used only in cases where the segregation of offenders is necessary to protect society. In all other cases, community-based alternatives present better options — more economic and, incidentally, more humane.


Ronald Goldfarb is a Washington-based lawyer and author. Among his books are After Conviction: A Review of the Correction System, Jails: the Ultimate Ghetto and Ransom: A Review of the American Bail System.