“More Expensive” Offers Alternatives to Incarceration to Break the Recidivism Cycle

Title: It’s More Expensive to do Nothing

Producer: Humane Exposures Films

Directed by: Alan Swyer

Non-violent offender is arrested, convicted, does his time, re-enters society and the cycle repeats. This is the typical cycle of recidivism in the American criminal justice system thanks largely to the “tough on crime” approach of state and federal policy. If the goal of policy makers is to put more individuals in prison, they are surely succeeding as the U.S. has 2.38 million prisoners; the highest number of reported prisoners in the world. If the goal of policy makers is to aid individuals in rehabilitation the policy makers have surely failed.

If incarceration is not the answer, does anyone have a better alternative?

Humane Exposures, the producers of the up and coming documentary It’s More Expensive to do Nothing believe they do. Their answer to this growing problem is a less costly alternative to incarceration; they say remediation is a better way. More Expensive, focusing primarily on California’s criminal justice system, interviews some 25 experts in the fields of psychiatry, law, law enforcement, corrections, policy, and healthcare as well as several individuals who themselves broke their personal cycles of recidivism and successfully turned their lives around with the aid of the very policies and programs the film advocates.

The most obvious question to answering the problem of recidivism is simply “why do 75% of California’s offenders re-offend?” Several very good answers are offered in the film but perhaps the best answer comes from Bruce Perry, MD, PhD, and Senior Fellow of the ChildTrauma Academy of Houston, Texas:

I would challenge anybody who is watching this [documentary] to be able to take 200 bucks, with no place to live really…except for a flophouse and not have a job or even job skills…

I mean, you may be a lawyer with no job. How long are you going to last?


Why do we expect somebody who has fewer skills than a professional to be able to somehow get out into the community and be successful?

We libertarians talk a lot about how individuals should be held responsible for their own actions as a consequence of living in a free society. Generally speaking, libertarians dislike government programs that are intended to help people avoid the consequences of their poor decisions. Be that as it may, I believe that Dr. Perry makes a very good point here. It’s very difficult to expect individuals to make better decisions in the future when there are few options available. With little or no social skills, little or no job skills, little or no support from family, friends, or the community, its very difficult for most individuals to resist re-offending. For those who are addicted to illicit drugs, trying to stay out of trouble is all that much more difficult.

As difficult as it may be for most of us to imagine, several of the ex-cons featured in the film did not find the prospect of returning to prison as much of a deterrent to making bad choices. Karen Miller, Drug and Alcohol Counselor for Community Resources And Self Help (CRASH) who herself is 11 years sober and broke the recidivism cycle said that if nothing else, she saw going back to jail as “Three hots and a cot.” Another said he felt safer behind bars than on the street. The truth of the matter is that the prison system is a government program as well complete with housing, healthcare, and 3 square meals for each inmate each day.

The government program championed by the experts in the film which was a result of California Senate Bill 618 provides non-violent offenders a multi-agency approach with the goal of helping them acquire job training, treatment, and most importantly, hope for their futures. Proponents argue that this isn’t a hand out but a hand up. Each person who goes through these programs are held accountable by their councilors, their peers, and themselves. Each has to take initiative and earn their completion certificates before they reenter society.

The premise of the film is in its title: “It’s More Expensive to do Nothing.” Obviously, doing “something” also has a cost associated with it, so what does their alternative program cost and has the program shown measurable results? According to the film, the program costs California taxpayers about $5,000 per inmate per year with a 20% failure rate. Considering the size of California’s prison population, this seems like a great deal of money. But compared with the costs associated with the more traditional incarceration approach costing $75,000 per inmate, per year with a 75% failure rate, the alternative program seems like quite a bargain.

Despite the program’s success, these programs are in danger of losing funding. My question is why? While I know that California is financially a hot mess, it seems to me that if these programs are as successful as those in the film claims, even the law and order types in positions of power would do everything possible to keep this program going.

This leads me to my first of two criticisms of the film. Where are the people who represent the counterpoint? Though I am very sympathetic to the case More Expensive makes, hearing the other side’s arguments could further illuminate the debate. Even Michael Moore interviews individuals who disagree with him in his crockumentaries!

My second criticism is the failure to deal directly with the elephant in the room: the war on (some) drugs. While those interviewed in the film acknowledge that drug policy has lead to increased incarceration, has proven futile, and has contributed mightily to the recidivism problem they are trying to address, I don’t recall any mention from anyone raising the prospect of decriminalization or legalization of drugs. Portugal is a real life case study in how decriminalization there has led to less crime and fewer people suffering from drug addiction. Those who opposed decriminalization in Portugal warned of all the same dooms day consequences that drug warriors say would happen here but so far has not materialized. Bringing Portugal into the discussion may have given the film another interesting dimension.

My guess is that, provided that the producers of the film agree with the idea of decriminalization or legalization, perhaps raising this argument would turn off people who might otherwise on board with their approach. Or maybe ending the war on (some) drugs in America anytime soon is so unlikely in their minds that they want to work within the political reality we currently find ourselves. Convincing policy makers to consider remediation over punishment is quite a challenge in itself in a culture that affectionately refers to Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio “the toughest sheriff in America” despite a long history of misconduct and civil rights abuses.

All criticisms aside, It’s More Expensive is a very important and very informative film that brings attention to an issue that doesn’t usually receive very much play in the media. The voices of a more common sense corrections policy deserve to be heard and It’s More Expensive to do Nothing amplifies these voices. It’s now up to us to listen and avoid the costly mistake of doing nothing to stop this vicious cycle.

  • http://antinomian-peacenik.blogspot.com Bill Harris

    One need not travel to China to find indigenous cultures lacking human rights. America leads the world in percentile behind bars, thanks to the ongoing open season on hippies, commies, and non-whites in the war on drugs. Cops get good performance reviews for shooting fish in a barrel. If we’re all about spreading liberty abroad, then why mix the message at home? Peace on the home front would enhance global credibility.

    Rooting out the number-one cash crop in the land burns tax dollars instead of booking them. Arresting Americans for gardening empowers outlaws to take over Mexico. Political prisoner Marc Emery’s crime was to keep Madame Secretary Clinton’s promise to Calderon. Emery sold seed to American farmers, reducing U. S. demand for Mexican pot.

    Prison flushes lives down expensive tubes, paid for by our descendants. My shaman’s second opinion is that psychoactive plants are God’s gift. Behold, it’s all good. When Eve ate the apple, she knew a good apple, and evil prohibition. The DEA says, “We don’t need no stinking amendment.”

    Nixon passed the CSA (Controlled Substances Act of 1970) on the false assurance that the Schafer Commission would later justify criminalizing his enemies, but he underestimated Schafer’s integrity. No amendments can assure due process under an anti-science law without due process itself. Psychology hailed the breakthrough potential of LSD, until Schedule One shut down research, and pronounced that marijuana has no medical use.

    The RFRA (Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993) allows Native American Church members to eat peyote. Non-placebo sacraments remain prohibited to everybody else. Use of entheogen sacraments to mediate communion must be protected for all Americans, irrespective of church. Mortal lawmakers should not presume to thwart the intelligent design that molecular keys unlock spiritual doors.

    Freedom of speech presupposes freedom of thought. The Constitution doesn’t enumerate any governmental power to embargo diverse states of mind. Legislators who would limit cognitive liberty lack jurisdiction. How and when did government usurp this power to coerce conformity? The Puritans sailed to escape coerced religious conformity, only to themselves coerce conformity on Quakers. Persons who appreciate their own free choice of path in life should tolerate seekers’ self-exploration.

    Common-law holds that adults are the legal owners of their own bodies. The Founding Fathers undersigned that the God-given rights of liberty and the pursuit of happiness are inalienable. Socrates said to know your self. He paid the price of death cheerfully for corrupting youth by discussing the unjust hypocrisies of the powerful.

  • EscapedWestOfTheBigMuddy

    A big part of the why these programs are in danger despite looking like the best thing going can be expressed in two words: Willie Horton.

    It doesn’t matter that the program targets the non-violent. One B&E gone wrong the results in a kidnapping or murder will crush some politician’s career. Maybe more than one politician.

    And pols are risk averse.

  • http://anarchangel.blogspot.com Chris Byrne

    Never mind Willie Horton, never mind Bill Harris’s pseudorandom political screed…

    There’s three things keeping the penal system going:

    1. It’s a jobs program for law enforcement and “corrections” officers, and administrators.

    2. Non-offending people ARE actually safer when offenders are imprisoned (the problem is, what happens when they get out).

    3. The punitive principle.

    We feel that people who do bad should be PUNISHED.

    Punishment isn’t SUPPOSED to “help” them. Punishment isn’t supposed to “rehabilitate” them.

    The very term “department of corrections” is a hypocritical misnomer.

    Americans (and to a large extent most other cultures), put people in prison to punish them, not to “fix” them.

    “Corrections”, “penal”, “penitentiary”… All high minded BS myths.

    The reason “Sheriff Joe” is so popular, despite being the worst sort of scum, is because he reassures people that he is “punishing the bad guys”; and THAT is honestly what people want.

    Eastern State Penitentiary, the first “modern” penitentiary style prison, was deliberately fashioned to resemble monks cells (which is where we got the name for inmate housing units), in the belief that isolation, contemplation, prayer, and penitence (thus the name), would reform criminals into decent men.

    It was held up as the new “humane” model. In reality it drove prisoners mad and they killed themselves, and each other, in droves.

    So long as we refuse to acknowledge the true purpose behind “custodial sentencing” and pretend it has anything to do with the offender coming out better on the other side, we are stuck with what we’ve got (And rapidly getting worse).

    We have to stop pretending that punishment does anything but feed our base emotions.

    We have to stop pretending that the negative prospect of prison is sufficient to deter criminals from committing crimes. Most criminals by nature have a poor appreciation for consequences, poor impulse control, and an inability to make valid risk/reward calculations.

    When you put a criminal away, all you are doing is warehousing him where he can’t commit that crime anymore.

    That does serve a valid purpose, but it costs a huge amount of money, and doesn’t fix the problem.

    I’m going to put my plan for criminal justice reform down separately, It’s a little long for a comment.

  • http://humaneexposures.com Steve O’Keefe


    I work with Humane Exposures Films, the producers of “It’s More Expensive to Do Nothing,” and I’d like to thank you for the detailed, insightful review.

    I also want to address one issue you raised: Who is opposed to funding these very cost-effective programs? Take a look at who financed the campaign against SB618 in California: the correctional officers union.

    Yup, it’s that simple — and that disgusting. Inmates mean job security for the corrections unions.

  • http://www.thelibertypapers.org/ Stephen Littau


    You both touched on something I didn’t mention in the review that is important in understanding why things are the way they are; myself and others refer to this as the prison industrial complex. Much of the reason that politicians don’t want to keep recidivism from occurring is the special interests who rely on a large prison population (i.e. corrections officers, police, contractors, and sadly construction). If the types of reforms that I advocate were adopted, such as 1.) pardoning all non-violent drug offenders and 2.) legalizing the distribution, sale, and use of drugs we would cut the prison population in half (probably cut it closer to 60%). This would be great news for taxpayers but terrible news for the special interests who rely on the prison industrial complex.

  • http://www.thelibertypapers.org/ Stephen Littau


    I believe the purpose of prisons *should* be to punish violent offenders who have either threatened or taken the life, liberty, or property of a non-consenting other person. The worst violent offenders should be separated from society altogether as they have proven that they can’t play well with others (there’s no purpose in ‘rehabilitating’ a murder). I get into greater detail on this point here http://www.thelibertypapers.org/2009/04/11/reforming-americas-prison-system-the-time-has-come/

    Unfortunately, as we both know prisons are being used not only to punish those that fit the criteria above but also to punish those who do something most people find “immoral” (i.e. vices such as drug abuse, prostitution, and gambling). More often than not, those who get put away for these “crimes” become real criminals as their pasts make it difficult to make better decisions in the future as they try to find a place to work and live.

    This is the reality we live in. While I agree with you in principle that prisons should be used to punish rather than “correct” behavior, as long as we have people being locked up for “immoral” behavior, I believe it makes more sense to go the remediation route as opposed to the punitive route. Many of these people do get out of prison eventually and it’s in everyone’s best interest that they come out better than they came in…well, everyone but those who depend on the prison industrial complex.

  • Justin Bowen

    If the goal of policy makers is to make our communities safer…the policy makers have surely failed.

    Either safeness (or lack thereof) of our streets is in large part due to crime-targeting policies or it isn’t.

    If it is, then it’s pretty clear that the policies are working. Crimes, both reported and unreported, are falling and reporting of crimes is up (which could also be a bad thing, depending on how you look at it (if you’re a man who’s been arrested for rape or domestic violence, I’m sure there’s a good chance that you don’t think that increased reporting of alleged crimes to the police is a good thing)). Our streets are safer than they’ve probably ever been.

    If it isn’t, then it’s pointless to talk crime-targeting policies as the solution to or cause of the problems (or solutions).

    You can’t have it both ways.

  • http://www.humaneexposures.com Steve O’Keefe


    The reason serious crime is in decline could very well be the increasing use of inmate treatment programs around the country, and not a result of improved law enforcement.

  • Justin Bowen


    Even if the decline in serious crime is due to those treatment programs, those treatment programs are a part of the overall crime policy…which means that it’s working and doesn’t need to be replaced in its entirety but rather just tinkered with here and there. Regardless of whether people think the policy ought to be amended to achieve this goal or that goal, they need to first accept that the current policy is resulting in lower crime or doesn’t affect the crime rate instead of claiming that it’s not working because crime is supposedly out of control when, in fact, it’s on the decline.

  • http://www.thelibertypapers.org/ Stephen Littau


    The overall violent crime rate may be down; I haven’t studied the latest trends. However, you can’t tell me that arresting non-violent offenders makes us safer (which is what this review and documentary is primarily about). Many who start out as non-violent drug users go on to commit other crimes to support their habit while others get into dealing because of the huge money making potential.

    If we legalized activities which do not violate the life, liberty, and property of others, I’m convinced that violent crime would go down much lower than it is. Ending the war on (some) drugs would put the drug cartels out of business and would rid organized crime of a major revenue stream.

    I guess I should have been more clear on that point.