The Time for Alternatives

April 2, 2010 | | Comments Off on The Time for Alternatives

 By Alexaundra Fitzgerald

The aims of punishment are incapacitation, rehabilitation, deterrence, and retribution. Today the focus of the criminal justice system is incapacitation. Incapacitation is pursued through the incarceration of offenders in private and public prisons. The prison system is very costly, and it becomes more of a financial burden on state and federal governments every year.


 In 2009, the Pew Center on the States issued a report revealing the staggering statistics on incarceration rates and the cost of prison. One out of every thirty-one adults is in contact with the correctional system. The Pew Center found that nine percent of African American adults, four percent of Hispanic adults, and two percent of Caucasian adults, are under the control of the criminal justice system. All prisoners, regardless of race, have two things in common. They tend to be less educated and more impoverished than the general population.

 Annually, States spend over four-hundred millions dollars incarcerating offenders. The Pew Center’s suggested solution to this financial disaster is to change sentencing laws and probation programs in order to use prison dollars to implement preventative programs. Every politician fears being labeled as soft on crime, so it is unclear how many law makers will support funding preventative programs over incarceration. 

Preventive programs can be used in conjunction with, rather than in place of incarceration, in order to combat recidivism. Prison education programs, job training, and transitional housing are just a few programs that could help prevent offenders from reentering the system once they are released. Restorative justice programs have also been used as alternatives to incarceration.

Restorative programs were first used for minor juvenile offenders with short records. The programs expanded to include adults and violent offenders. For low level offenders, restorative agreements can serve as the sentence. For violent crimes, like homicide, restorative agreements are simply used to heal victims and offenders.

There are three major types of restorative programs. First, victim-offender mediation (VOM). VOM sessions allow the victim and offender to reach an agreement on how to make things right between them.  Cases are referred for VOM by courts, police, or even members of the community. Second, restorative conferencing. The victim and offender discuss the crime and how it impacted each of them. Re-integrative shaming is a large part of the conference. The process is meant to respectfully show disapproval for the offender’s actions and to help him or her reintegrate into society. Third, restorative circles. Circles are open to offenders, victims, their family and friends, and members of the community. Each participant has the chance to speak.

A UK study of restorative justice programs showed that such programs are generally successful. They reduced victim’s post traumatic stress symptoms, proved victims and offenders with more satisfaction with the criminal justice system, reduced crime victim’s desire for violent revenge against their offenders, and reduced the cost of criminal justice. Restorative programs seem to reduce recidivism more effectively with serous crimes. Restorative justice programs have been successful with reducing recidivism for juveniles as well. The rate of recidivism dropped with participation in any restorative program. Success rates were highest when formal programs were used, rather than simply attaching restitution to another formal punishment, such as probation.

The cost of the prison system and the number of incarcerated individuals is skyrocketing. Alternatives such as restorative justice programs not only reduce the cost of the criminal justice system, but also benefit victims and offenders.  These programs can reduce the cost of the prison system because they have the power to reduce recidivism. A reduction in recidivism is beneficial for offenders, victims, and the general public.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user tibchris

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