A Book from the Library of Defense

Early Release

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by: Abassos • March 3, 2010 • no comments

Oregon made the NYT. The story is about the backlash against early release (ie, increased good time) programs initiated in the face of looming state budget disasters. It even quotes the scare ads that were running all around our fine state: "A woman is asleep in her apartment. Suddenly she's attacked by a registered sex offender and a convicted burglar."

It seems to me that the bigger picture often gets lost in the political spin. The bigger picture is that we, as a nation and as a state, overuse prison as a penalty. This fact is true in a comparitive sense: the U.S. imprisons more people than all 36 of the largest European populations combined (including Russia). It's also true in a historical sense: for the first time, more than one in 100 American citizens are incarcerated. Oregon is no exception. In fact, Oregon spends a greater percentage of its general fund on incarceration than any other state in the nation.

But most importantly, we overuse prison in terms of its efficacy. Prison is less effective than other options in reducing crime: the data is clear that increasing good time and strong community supervision reduce recidivism. This is particularly true in a dollar for dollar comparison. Prison is expensive. Of course, prison is effective in warehousing people separate from the community. So where we decide that the defendant is a dangerous person who needs to be warehoused, prison makes sense. I don't know anyone who isn't okay with locking up for a very, very long time the perpetrator from the scare ad above - the rapist who breaks into homes and attacks women. Assuming he's found guilty. But lets not kid ourselves about the point: it's not to reform the person and it's not to deter crime. Prison has very little reformative or deterrent power. It's to warehouse the person and fulfill our human need for vengeance.

For defendants who aren't predatory, the decision isn't between saving money and community safety. Money and safety are on the same side of the equation. The decision is between, on one hand: saving money, increasing community safety and doing what's right and humane. And, on the other hand, fear.