“More Expensive” Offers Alternatives to Incarceration to Break the Recidivism Cycleby Stephen Littau
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.