Spring 2011 Pro Se Newsletter http://www.plsny.org/Pro_Se_Vol._21_No._1_Feb._2011.pdf http://www.plsny.org/html/pro_se_newsletter.html… WE KNOW WHAT WE NEED TO DO – WHY DON’T WE DO IT? A Message From the Executive Director – Karen L. Murtagh With all the talk about the budget deficit and our current economic crisis, you would think that we would finally pay attention to what we know works when it comes to criminal justice policies – if for no other reason than to promote sound fiscal policies. Of course, to agree on “what works” we have to agree on both our goal and the most efficacious methods for achieving that goal. For the most part, I think that we can all agree that the primary goal of the criminal justice system in New York is public safety. As a criminal justice major in college and subsequently as a lawyer, I was taught that the way in which we have pursued the goal of public safety has evolved over time. For instance, rehabilitation and reintegration were not always considered necessary components in achieving public safety. In fact, there was a time when society believed that “criminals” were “born that way” and public safety could only be achieved through punishment and deterrence; thus the focus on incarceration. But as time passed we grew in our understanding of the physiology of the brain, the effects of socio-economic factors and the importance of education. We learned that people engage in criminal activity for all sorts of reasons and that most people can be rehabilitated. We also learned that the goal of public safety is better served if we focus on rehabilitation and reintegration. And yet, you only have to look at the statistics on incarceration and recidivism rates to see that the United States is one of the least effective countries in the Western world when it comes to implementing policies and strategies that promote public safety. Take for example incarceration rates. The United States has the highest documented incarceration rate in the world. As of June 2009, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that the incarceration rate in the U.S. was 748 inmates per 100,000, or approximately 1 out of every 136 adults! The U.S. has less than 5% of the world‟s population but approximately 25% of the world‟s prison population. None of our closest competitors– Russia, Belarus and Bermuda, with incarceration rates of approximately 532 prisoners per 100,000 – is even a close second. More disturbing is the comparison of our incarceration rate to the rates of a number of other countries – New Zealand: 186, per 100,000; England and Wales: 148 per 100,000; Australia: 126 per 100,000; The Netherlands: 93 per 100,000; and Norway: 66 per 100,000. While the incarceration rate in the United State is the highest in the world, we also have a very high crime rate. Given our high crime rate, if a high rate of incarceration helped us to achieve our goal of public safety, it might make sense to continue down the path of incarcerating people at the current rate. But the sad news is that our rate of incarceration does not translate into public safety. Corrections experts agree that recidivism rates are the most accurate measure of whether a particular correctional system is successful. Thus, unless a high rate of incarceration correlates with a low recidivism rate, it cannot be said to promote public safety. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the recidivism rate in the U.S. is 67.5 percent. Compare this rate to the rates in other countries and you will find that the U.S. tops the charts once again. Japan‟s national recidivism rate is 39%; Sweden‟s is 35%; and Canada‟s is 35% for men and 20% for women. When we look to other countries to study why their recidivism rates are so low, we find that not only are their incarceration rates lower but their approach to incarceration is also quite different from the approach taken by the U.S. Take, for example, Norway‟s Halden Prison. Dubbed „the most humane prison in the word,‟ the recidivism rate for individuals released from Halden is only 20%. At Halden Prison, the focus of the correctional strategy is based on respect for human rights. I will write more about Halden approach to corrections in the next issue of Pro Se, but for now, the point is that we do not have to look too far to see what works. So why do we continue to pursue public safety using techniques that we know do not work? Why don‟t we focus more of our time, energy and resources on adopting the practices that have led other countries to have lower rates of incarceration and recidivism? Hasn‟t the time come for us to focus on criminal justice strategies that both enhance public safety and are fiscally sound?
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