Updating the Prison System: Rehabilitation Reform

 /  March 24, 2020, 4:35 p.m.


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Despite only making up 5 percent of the world’s total population, the United States currently holds 25 percent of the world’s prison population. Many scholars and politicians attribute the high amount of prisoners to mass incarceration, stemming from the War on Drugs. As a response to the War on Drugs, there have been movements to reform the prison system across the United States, with some even calling for the abolishment of prisons—the US prison system costs $182 billion every year while showing no quantifiable improvement in public safety. This claim is valid, as the US prison system has only seemed to entrench the problem further, with the prison population having grown by 700 percent since the 1970s with over 75 percent of released prisoners being re-incarcerated within five years. At the root of this problem is the prison system’s misplaced focus on punishment, rather than on rehabilitation. Focusing on rehabilitation—by expanding pre-existing programs—will make the US prison system more effective by ensuring that former inmates are not forced back into criminal activities. 

The War on Drugs: A History of Ignoring Rehabilitation

President Richard Nixon declared a “war on drugs” in 1971, after drug use—a symbol of disobedience, political dissent, and rebellion—drastically increased. He increased restrictions on the usage of drugs as well as on the size and presence of federal drug control agencies to enforce these new regulations. When Ronald Reagan took office, he launched campaigns such as “Just Say No,” corroborating the narrative that drugs are dangerous. Under his administration, incarceration rates due to drug-related offenses skyrocketed. The number of nonviolent drug offenders in prison jumped from fifty thousand in 1980 to four hundred thousand by 1997. The fear of drugs was further instilled by the media, which perpetrated the perceived horrors of illicit drug use, leading to states implementing zero-tolerance policies to attempt to curb drug abuse. The rise of zero-tolerance programs and other punitive measures used during the War on Drugs emphasized punishment as a form of deterrence for potential nonviolent drug users. This led to overcrowded prisons, which forced rehabilitation efforts on the backburner. In 1993, Stanford University reported that while 2.5 million drug users could have benefited from rehabilitation treatment, only 1.4 million of these drug users actually received treatment. 

The priority of the federal government has been clear. During the George Bush Administration, law enforcement and punitive measures received the bulk of drug funding; demand reduction strategies, which included educational awareness, treatment, and prevention, were just 36 percent of all funding. In 1986, a person serving time for a federal drug offense would serve an average of twenty-two months. By 2014, people were serving almost three times that length. When Bill Clinton took over, he continued many of Reagan’s policies towards the War on Drugs. His 1995 budget allocated a total of $13.2 billion on drug policy, but only $5.4 billion were spent on education, prevention, and rehabilitation.

The War on Drugs has targeted racial minorities through racial discrimination by law enforcement as well as by increasing enforcement in low-income urban areas, which are predominantly non-white. Nearly 80 percent of people in federal prisons and 60 percent of people in state prisons are black or Latino, which is significantly disproportionate to the amount of drug use in these communities when compared to white communities. Moreover, prosecutors are twice as likely to pursue a mandatory minimum sentence for a black person than a white person charged with the same crime.

Beyond race, the strict drug laws also have harsh implications on noncitizens. A drug violation could trigger automatic detention or deportation, and bars individuals from reentering the United States. Since 2007, more than 250,000 people have been deported from the United States for drug law violations, and deportations for drug possession offenses increased by 43 percent from 2007 to 2012. When considering the War on Drugs and the narrative of punitive policy, it is thus vital to keep in mind the disproportionate implications that they have on people of color. 

What’s Happening Today

Almost half the people incarcerated on the federal level are incarcerated for drug-related charges, and the number of people imprisoned on the state level for drug offenses has increased ninefold since the War on Drugs began. Most of these individuals are not leaders or high level actors in drug trade, nor do they have any record of violent offenses. 

In spite of this, the status quo seems to be changing, and we are witnessing a shift towards reforming drug policies to reduce criminalization. In eleven states, marijuana is now legal or decriminalized for adults. President Barack Obama had supported several decriminalizing policy changes such as reducing the sentence disparity, ending the ban on federal funding for syringe access programs, and allowing states to decide their medical marijuana laws. Throughout the current Democratic primary, most candidates also support the legalization or decriminalization of marijuana. Yet despite this progress, five hundred thousand people are still behind bars for nothing more than a non-violent drug offense.

The Case for Rehabilitation Programs for Non-Violent Drug Offenders

While most of the current political rhetoric on drugs has been related to the legalization of marijuana, that does little for current non-violent drug offenders who are in prison. Indeed, with the number of people behind bars so high, the key question remains how effective the American prison system is. While the War on Drugs has sent incarceration rates through the roof, it is unclear whether it has improved public safety. Critics of the prison system support the shift from punishment and deterrence to rehabilitation efforts such as providing classroom settings for prisoners and psychiatrists to help deal with prisoners’ psychological problems. While the process to rehabilitate inmates is expensive, long, and grueling, it will allow inmates to better their lives rather than slip back into a life of crime once they are released.

A shift to prioritizing rehabilitation programs would address the root cause of crime and lead to an overall more effective prison system that discourages people from recommitting crimes. Thus, it is important to focus on implementing policies that would prevent inmates from engaging in criminal acts once released. As it stands now, the current prison system is doing a horrendous job: over 75 percent of released inmates are re-incarcerated within five years of discharge from prison. Thus, it is clear that punishment is ineffective. Prioritizing and strengthening rehabilitation programs would prepare inmates to be better members of society and be less likely to commit crimes again. There are various programs that have been implemented in state-level prisons that have shown tremendous success. 

In the 1960s, psychologists found that cognitive and behavioral therapy often developed in parallel paths; thus they were merged to form cognitive-behavioral therapy. Recently, this method has taken off in prisons, specifically in Washington State. After success in its first facility, the state’s government expanded this method to more facilities in 2012, cutting recidivism rates by nearly half. Cognitive behavioral therapy, also known as CBT, counsels prisoners on how to avoid situations that might prompt them to commit crimes. This method has been shown to be incredibly effective at preventing people from reoffending because it helps them understand the triggers that prompt them to offend. Empirically, CBT can reduce recidivism rates by 10–30 percent. For this reason, a 2004 research project found that thirteen out of fourteen studies found that CBT has a positive cost-benefit outcome; thus, investing in this therapy now could save Americans millions in taxpayer dollars later. Unfortunately, only 20 percent of American prisons used CBT programs and only 5 percent of individuals had access to these programs. In order for CBT to really take off in American prisons, the mentality toward inmates needs to shift from punitive deterrence to healing.

Providing a classroom setting and an education for inmates has also been shown to decrease recidivism. Currently, only 27 percent of state prisons offer college courses and only 44 percent of private prisons provide vocational training. Unfortunately, education is a good indicator of an individual’s likelihood of committing crime, because if one does not have an education, it is more difficult to get a job, which can lead one to be dependent on crime. Empirically, individuals who did not complete high school were rearrested at 60.4 percent and those with a college degree were rearrested at a rate of 19.1 percent. The reasoning behind this is clear: formerly incarcerated individuals with low levels of education often find themselves without financial resources and social support systems. They are also stigmatized with the mark of prison, making it difficult to reintegrate into society. This makes them vulnerable to committing criminal acts. Accordingly, inmates who participated in these educational programs in prison had a 28 percent higher chance of obtaining a job post release and, thus, were less likely to commit a crime.

In addition to showing the merits of rehabilitation, it is important to note that punishment of non-violent drug offenders behind bars often increases crime rather than decreasing it. Over 85 percent of drug arrests are for possession only, which means that such people were not committing violent acts at the time of arrest. However, sending these low-danger offenders to harsh prison environments might actually make them more likely to become violent criminals. James Gilligan of the New York Times reports that two-thirds of prisoners reoffend within three years of leaving prison, often with more serious and violent offenses. He notes that the failure of the current US prison system lies in the “one size fits all” methodology, where anyone who has committed a crime is thrown into the same prison system: one that restrains and punishes individuals. However, non-violent drug offenders don’t need to be restrained for the sake of “teaching them a lesson.” In fact, when thrown into such a hostile environment, they learn to inflict pain on others as a means of survival. Thus, Gilligan concludes that rather than helping individuals rebuild themselves, prison serves as a school for them to learn to commit more dangerous crimes.

The current system of criminalizing non-violent drug offenders has clearly failed: it is an extremely costly system that doesn’t make the United States any safer. Prison systems ought to shift from the focus on deterrence to the prioritization of rehabilitation programs, which will rebuild inmates and help them reintegrate into society. Until then, we can expect the prison population to continue to increase.

The image featured in this article is in the public domain (CCO). The original image can be found here.


Sophia Lam


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