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?