The LA Times ran a story at the end of last week about a California Supreme Court decision that forces LA County to release thousands of inmates early due to overcrowding. Predictably, jail officials cried foul, claiming that early release would lead to increases in crime and would negatively impact public safety.
The essence of their argument goes something like this: The longer someone is incarcerated, the less crime there will be in the community. This seems logical enough on its face. if someone is in jail, then they’re not out committing crimes on the street.
But, the logic of the argument breaks down when we look at incarceration as a system.
The jail-reduces-crime argument might hold water if we locked everyone up forever. This isn’t the case, though. About 93% of all incarcerated persons will be released at some point. So, what incarceration does is simply move criminal offending downstream a bit. I’ve written about this before, so I won’t go over it again in detail.
The basic idea, however, is that there is a constant stream of offenders (about 1,600 people per day) being released back into society from our jails and prisons nationwide. And, because of our over-reliance on jails and prisons as a primary crime reduction strategy, we don’t have resources necessary to reduce the risk that jailed individuals will reoffend in the future.
We send people to jail, warehouse them for a while, release them back into the same set of circumstances that lead to their offending in the first place, the cycle continues, and we react with shock that offenders are reoffending. So, whether LA releases prisoners now or months from now will have no appreciable affect on public safety overall. It may cause a temporary blip in crime stats in the near term, but over time that blip will even out into the background noise of criminal activity occurring in LA.
It’s disingenuous for jail authorities to raise public fear about the safety impact of this particular early release program, especially when those same prisoners will present the same risk to public safety when released at some point in the future. The system is doing nothing to address the underlying problems that lead to crime in the first place, but somehow gets to claim that it’s working to reduce crime now. It’s not.
To be clear, there are people who need to be incarcerated. Violent, dangerous, career offenders need to be kept away from society for as long as possible. But, the majority of individuals imprisoned system-wide (not just in California) are nonviolent drug offenders. We can, and should, manage them in the community. Doing so would reduce overcrowding, increase resources for rehabilitation, and contribute to more rational incarceration policies.
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