Cheap Justice

photo by zen on Flickr

Maeve Hickok is a writer and the managing editor at, an online scientific and environmental journal, supporting the Global Earth Observation System of Systems.

Imagine President Obama holding a news conference to announce a federal buyout that would actually save taxpayers billions instead of costing taxpayers billions. And this buyout would not only save taxpayers money, he would say, but improve the quality of millions of American lives as well.


Wouldn’t that be something?


Well he could do that if the states—we, the voters and taxpayers—adopted the recommendations of the Pew Center for the States and redesigned the criminal justice system, which costs taxpayers $68 billion annually. We need to put more emphasis and financial support into “inexpensive” community-based intervention and remediation, and less into building more “expensive” prisons, and legislating stiffer penalties for non-violent offenders. 


So why haven’t we done this already—don’t we see this as just common sense?  Apparently not, explains the Pew Center, which points to dramatic increases over the last twenty years in prison population and construction, and in widely divergent judicial and corrections policies. State-by-state analyses show our corrections systems are our second largest expense after Medicaid.


Changing Lives through Literature is one of those “inexpensive,” community-based programs that should be part of the President’s plan, but more on that later.


1 in 31


According to “1 in 31,” the Pew Center report released March 2, 2009, 1 in every 31 U.S. adults or 7.3 million is now in the corrections system—either behind bars, on parole or probation– at a cost of more than $68 billion per year.  


The largest per capita portion of that money is spent on 2.3 million prisoners at an average annual cost of $28,816.75. Yet, the majority of people in the corrections system are 4.3 million probationers at an annual average cost of $1,248 and 824,000 parolees at an average annual cost of $2,750 per year.


Why are we spending so much on so few? The explanations vary from state to state and region to region. But a between-the-line reading suggests this common thread: criminal offenders who are for the most part young people “offend’ law-abiding Americans who vote, pay taxes and who are mostly older. This is not necessarily a bad thing—we should be horrified and outraged by violence at any age. And there is no such thing as a victimless crime: heroin addiction destroys individuals, true enough, but it also injures families of addicts, wastes neighborhoods, and fuels the war in Afghanistan and the carnage in Mexico. Drug and property crimes comprise the majority of all felony cases so it’s no wonder these offenders receive the greatest number of penalties.  But should they receive the penalties they now receive; are they effective? Most of these offenders are young.


The legislators who are the authors of state laws, the voters who elect them and the prosecutors and judges who enforce them are for the most part older than those for whom they dictate longer sentences for more and more crimes. The Pew Center points out that there comes a point when putting young people in prison and letting them age out in the criminal justice system produces a diminishing return on the investment we believe we are making in public safety. It also creates an expanding population– mostly male –that is not contributing to their families, the workforce, society, or their own good health.


So, the Pew Center’s overarching recommendation is that we, the states—the nation—take stock of our criminal justice and corrections policies and budgets, and use the fiscal crisis to make structural changes—as we are doing in the auto industry and with other critical and thorny problems such as banking, health care, and the environment.


Literacy, Justice and Changing Lives through Literature


Bob Waxler and others in these pages have written eloquently about the humanizing impact of literature. I once had the privilege of sitting in on a CLTL class at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth where it began in 1991. Dr Waxler, Judge Robert Kane, and Probation Officer Wayne St. Pierre led a discussion of Sea Wolf by Jack London. I no longer remember what the men said in words, but I do remember what they said with their eyes. I witnessed eyes shining with self-awareness and discovery that their emotions, thoughts and actions were mirrored by the characters in a book. They wanted to know how those characters end up, and they could only do that by reading the whole thing, something many of them confessed they had never done before.  I saw, in that seminar room, changing lives in their eyes.


Books—great, important, truthful stories—CLTL demonstrates, have the power to break open the crust that builds up on the soul from a careless and cruel life. The program doesn’t work for everyone, but the rate of reoffending for a CLTL graduate is less than the rate for other probationary programs of its type. That means these men and women have learned and earned the chance to improve the quality of their lives.


We receive benefits to the quality of our lives, also. They include the return (maybe for the first time) of an adult who contributes to society, the social benefit of less crime, and the enormous taxpayer savings—CLTL costs only $500 per person!


According to CLTL, “An early study …revealed that those who complete the program are less than half as likely to re-offend as offenders sentenced to jail or standard probation. Further reviews conducted by individual courts confirm this pattern and show that graduates who do re-offend commit far less serious crimes, and rarely commit violent crimes. These statistics have motivated educators and law enforcement officials in eight states and England to create their own CLTL groups. At present, over 5,000 men, women, and juveniles have graduated from CLTL programs since its inception in 1991, and many have returned to school and found new jobs.”


The problems CLTL faces in expanding are stubborn and complex, but so are our economic, health care and environmental crises. This President isn’t afraid to tackle them and neither for the most part are we.


One problem is that so many offenders can’t read well enough to finish Judy Blume never mind Toni Morrison, so they can’t read the books that would change their lives. Functional illiteracy among criminal offenders is rampant, the Pew Center reports. But not everyone is illiterate in the 42 states that haven’t yet adopted CLTL, right? Some of the cost savings realized by the Pew Center recommendations should be diverted to education.


The other problem is that our society is emotional about crime. We are spending $68 billion counterproductively because we are using our hearts, not our minds to make fiscal decisions about crime and punishment. The Pew Center for the States report Arming the Courts with Research gives specific recommendations they rather prosaically call “evidence-based.” They mean that we should set objectives, devise methods and standards for meeting them, and reward those who meet them, whether criminal offender, criminal justice provider or taxpayer.


Changing Lives through Literature and other well-supervised community-based interventions, and reasoned, not emotional sentencing can free up billions in this cash-strapped economy. This bailout would be something President Barack Obama could get behind, don’t you think?


8 thoughts on “Cheap Justice

  1. Maeve: Thanks for this eloquently written essay. I am, of course, in agreement! Now we need to get Obama’s attention. I’d like to see this essay on every op-ed page in the country. I hope you’ll help with that, too. Keep the vision.

  2. Changing the system through tough and other well-supervised executions, and reasoned, exportation of illegal aliens before sentencing will free up billions in this cash-strapped economy. This bailout would be something President Barack Obama could never get behind, don’t you think?

  3. I am ever so grateful that “anonymous” is presumably not in charge of the criminal justice system.
    A long time ago I read a children’s story about a prince who kept hearing complaints about the king’s refusal to solve problems. The prince took matters into his own hands and started “solving” problems. Every time he solved a problem, the solution created a host of new problems. Having said that I agree that the criminal justice system needs a serious overhaul and while we are at it we ought to look at crime prevention as the ultimate way to improve the lives of potential offenders.
    Why is everything so complicated?

  4. Maeve, your appeal goes to the heart of the matter and beyond just the criminal justice system: too many institutions are run by emotion and historical precedent. We can only hope, and act on that hope, that well intentioned folk and “well-supervised community-based interventions” will persist and, one day, prevail. Some of us back in the 60s thought we could right the world. Many of us were idealistic students. Then we graduated, got jobs, had families, and became entangled in “the system.” Never completely losing our ideals, we had to either pursue these ideals more cautiously, or delay them, or, as some did, give them up altogether. There seems to be a resurgence today for change in so many arenas as evidenced by CLTL, your work, and a host of environmental and other groups. But change is slow. One day though, we hope, all these positive forces will coelesce, and the changes we work for will reshape this land and people’s lives. This is not a crazy thought. I teach at a historically black college. Not one of my students thinks he or she can’t control his or her life. This is a far cry from what their parents thought. We just gotta keep on keepin’ on.

  5. I have to agree with the point of this essay that we need to do something to change the way the prison system is ran. Along with the program, Changing Lives through Literature, that is outlined in this essay we also need to focus on why individuals are committing these crimes in the first place not just on how to correct the individuals who have committed crimes that have caused them to become a part of the criminal justice system. Once we find out why offenders commit the crimes they do it becomes important that we implement programs that focus no longer on the criminal offender but instead on the citizen who may become a victim of these root causes.

    Another thing that should be tackled by the current administration is that they need to take a good hard look at the private prison industry and realize that it is not living up to the reason why it was originally created and that is to make the prison industry a more effective and cheaper institution. Instead the private prison industry is cutting costs in areas that make it a less effective than a state run institution and also through the business practices employed by these companies they are costing the taxpayers millions of dollars more than we should be paying.

    Overall, I agree with what the author has to say in this essay but I am not completely sure I buy into the idea of age being a significant mechanism. I believe that the reason why the legislatures are creating harsher punishments is not to single out the youth but instead they are following the school of thought that humans are rational thinking individuals and that we naturally want to do what is most pleasurable. Their hope with creating these harsher crimes is that we will realize that the pain of punishment will outweigh any pleasure we get from committing the crime.

  6. I have never heard of the Pew Center for the States until now and I definitely agree that President Obama should be adopting this recommendation. The fact that our corrections systems are our second largest expense after Medicaid surprises me even more. The Pew Center’s recommendation is that the nation uses the fiscal crisis to make structural changes and I strongly agree with this. Spending over $68 billion on the corrections system is something that I believe the Pew Center can change. I am also new to Changing Lives through Literature and I have never heard of such an inexpensive program of only $500 per person being able to improve the quality of people’s lives. After reading the information on how CLTL affects its graduates the results are amazing. Even though there is a possibility of graduates committing another crime, the fact that the crime is likely to be less serious makes me believe that this program needs to be spread throughout the nation. Although one of the program’s flaws is illiteracy among some members I believe that if those members who are illiterate are more expensive, the extra cost to pay for them to learn how to read would not even come close to the amount of money it is for them to be kept in prison. Not only does this program save millions of dollars but it also saves the quality of many lives in the United States. If President Obama adopts this program I believe that it will be one of the best decisions that Obama could ever make.

  7. While I can agree with the author’s original argument for the need to change the way the prison system is structured and organized, I believe he is incredibly mistaken with the idea of using literature as a form of therapeutic rehabilitation. Study after study shows that a majority percentage of crimes committed are acts of circumstance; and further, these criminal acts are learned behavior. I do not believe that by giving an individual a good fiction novel will stop them from committing the deviant behavior they have previously shown. There is an argument in this article pertaining to the idea that we spend so much money on the prison system because society is emotional about crime. And subsequently this is portrayed as a bad thing. However, I believe that in order for society to maintain subsequent behavioral standards crime cannot be something taken lightly.
    Understand that I am not attempting to invalidate the power a novel has, but we must consider what the author of this article is saying. Can any of us really say with confidence that The Old Man and the Sea would have stopped Timothy McVeigh, or War and Peace would have slowed down Ted Bundy? I think not. I understand I have given examples of extreme individuals but my point is universal to all criminals and criminal acts. Crime will forever remain a choice given from calculated decision based on circumstance. I commend Hickok for attempting a radical approach to an orthodox system that is failing miserably, but I guess I don’t have either the faith in literature or in humanity that he shows.

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