AG Holder: Prisons Not the Answer

Attorney General Eric Holder gave a speech today at the American Bar Association convention. He acknowledged we cannot jail ourselves out of our crime problems.

“We will not focus exclusively on incarceration as the most effective means of protecting public safety,” Holder told the American Bar Association delegates meeting here for their annual convention. “Since 2003, spending on incarceration has continued to rise, but crime rates have flattened.”

“Today, one out of every 100 adults in America is incarcerated — the highest incarceration rate in the world,” he said. But the country has reached a point of diminishing returns at which putting even greater percentages of America’s citizens behind bars won’t cut the crime rate.

Prison terms result in increased recidivism. And, he said, drug treatment works: [More...]

“Most crimes in America are committed by people who have committed crimes before,” Holder said. “About 67 percent of former state prisoners and 40 percent of former federal prisoners are re-arrested within three years of release. If we can reduce the rate of recidivism, we will directly reduce the crime rate.”

Prisoners who undergo drug treatment and/or work training in prison are 16 percent less likely to re-offend after their release, he said.

He praised New York state's program of diversion for drug offenders, sending them to treatment instead of prison.

He also called our over-reliance on prisons "economically unsustainable":

“Every state in the union is trying to trim budgets,” Holder said. “States and localities are laying off teachers, cutting back on public health, and canceling after-school programs for our children. But in almost all cases, spending on prisons continues to rise. This is unsustainable economically.”

He even pointed out the inadequacy of indigent defense funding:

Holder provoked applause from the delegates when he complained that across the country, state and local governments are under-funding public defenders, whose growing caseloads make it difficult for them to adequately represent their clients.

This is a message whose time has come. I spent an hour today interviewing Manhattan District Attorney candidate Richard Aborn (interview will be up in a few days.) One of his core messages was we need to get away from the reactive way of approaching crime and focus on prevention and intervention and finding alternatives to prison. He had concrete, well-thought out suggestions of how to do this.

There's a lot of momentum now for real reform, and the opportunity to become smart about crime rather than just tough on crime. The money we're throwing into prisons could be so much better used for prevention and intervention -- and for education and health care. I hope everyone jumps on the bandwagon while we have the opportunity.

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  • Display: Sort:
    What a welcome event (5.00 / 1) (#1)
    by MKS on Mon Aug 03, 2009 at 07:50:26 PM EST
    to see such comments from the Attorney General.

    prison should be... (none / 0) (#2)
    by Dadler on Mon Aug 03, 2009 at 08:25:37 PM EST
    ...for violent offenders.  Murder, attempted murder, assault and battery, rape, etc., these are the offenses that should be deemed a one-way tickets to lengthy incarceration.  Everything else we need to seriously re-examine.  Yesterday.  

    Ummm...OK. I'll be the (5.00 / 0) (#3)
    by oldpro on Tue Aug 04, 2009 at 12:46:30 AM EST
    devil's advocate.

    What shall we do with repeat DUI offenders who maim and or kill their passengers and others?

    What shall we do with the Bernie Madoffs of the world?  All the other white-collar ripoff artists who steal people's identities and/or rob them of their life savings?

    What about child abusers who aren't violent and refuse treatment?

    How's about Nixon?  Bush?  Karl Rove?  Cheney?

    It's not so much that we have so many people in prison.  For my money (and it IS my money) we have the wrong people in prison.


    I'll chime in.... (none / 0) (#7)
    by kdog on Tue Aug 04, 2009 at 09:11:48 AM EST
    If a drunk driver injures or kills somebody, thats a violent crime where prison time is warranted.  If it was up to me, blowing over the limit wouldn't even be a crime, just reckless driving, vehicular assault, and vehicular homicide.

    The Bernie Madoffs can pay restitution to their victim via asset seizure (post-conviction only) or wage garnishment...and do community service.

    Child abusers are violent...unless you're talking about verbal abuse only, which is terrible but not quite criminal...we can't law and order our way out of all the worlds problems, some are sadly here to stay...such as lousy parents.

    As for our various criminal types in government...caging them is very tempting:) but accomplishes nothing, besides first you have to convict them of something...good luck to us with that:)

    I know I'm a broken record with this sh*t, but until we realize cages for humans is a crime too we are really lost...we are way to desensitized to the horror of chaining and caging human beings.  It should be a last resort only, and even then done humanely as possible, not like a SuperMax.


    my 2 cents (none / 0) (#12)
    by nyjets on Tue Aug 04, 2009 at 11:40:53 AM EST
    1. Blowing over the drinking limit should be a crime. Driving while drunk puts people at risk, espically when they do it repeatly. At the very least, they should loose their license.
    2.THe  Bernie Madoffs should do prison time. They do more then steal money. They literal destroy lives.
    3. Minor quibble over verbal abuse. While putting parents in jail for verbal abuse should probable not be a crime, it should be possible to protect the children if they are being verbal abused.

    And I must disagree with the notion that putting people in jail is a crime. You put people who commited crimes into jail. I agree that jails should be humane but there is nothing criminal in locking criminals up. Very often that is the only way to punish the crimial and protect society.


    Retribution is the dominant factor in our (none / 0) (#4)
    by JSN on Tue Aug 04, 2009 at 06:52:40 AM EST
    present sentencing policy. I agree that incarceration is appropriate for persons that are a threat to public safety, I wish I could think of a better way than incarceration to deal with repeat offenders. I also think that incarceration for prohibited behavior is inappropriate unless there is a threat to public safety.

    I wonder why our penalties for prohibited behavior are criminal instead of civil penalties. In Portugal the use civl penalties for drug users and criminal penalties for drug dealers and they have a commission to decide case-by-case if user/dealers are dealt with as criminal or civil cases.


    So? (none / 0) (#6)
    by jbindc on Tue Aug 04, 2009 at 08:58:39 AM EST
    I mean, I agree with most of your comment, but so what if "retribution is the dominant factor in our sentencing policy"?  That's why they were called "penitentiaries" in the first place - those placed in them were supposed to stay there until they were "penitent" for their crimes.  Are we really supposed to feel sorry for people who go to prison for committing violent crimes?  And repeat offenders - how many chances do you give a person until you finally say "enough"?  I don't know the answer to that, but I think it's very easy for some to lump their answer into "we should empty the prisons and jails."

    But I like the idea of civil penalties for drug users and criminal penalties for dealers.  That might be a start to reducing the prison populations and helping more families (with a repeat offender vcaveat until drugs are made legal in this country).


    Criminal penalties for dealers... (none / 0) (#8)
    by kdog on Tue Aug 04, 2009 at 09:14:02 AM EST
    you mean like pharamacists or Pfizer?...:)

    Selling drugs is an honest living and should not be criminalized.


    Just going off the example (none / 0) (#9)
    by jbindc on Tue Aug 04, 2009 at 09:17:04 AM EST
    And no - right now, kdog, dealing drugs on the street is not an "honest living"  :)

    You've obviously.... (none / 0) (#10)
    by kdog on Tue Aug 04, 2009 at 09:23:44 AM EST
    never met my connects jb:)...a bunch of sweethearts making an honest extra couple bucks providing goods of value to willing customers...it don't get more honest.

    Treat me better than CVS, I'll tell ya that much...CVS never gave me some Percs on the arm:)


    I think overuse of retribution can reduce (none / 0) (#11)
    by JSN on Tue Aug 04, 2009 at 11:12:04 AM EST
    public safety. It costs about $1 million to incarcerate 35 people for a year and in high crime urban neighborhoods there can more than 35 people incarcerated from that neighborhood. We are spending $1 million or more on retribution for a single neighborhood where a smaller amount spent on crime and recidivism prevention would be more cost effective and could also improve the quality of life.

    not retribution--incapacitation (none / 0) (#13)
    by diogenes on Tue Aug 04, 2009 at 07:28:37 PM EST
    Present policy involves putting people in prisons so they cannot commit crimes on the streets.  
    Drug treatment is fine for nonviolent drug criminals, but rapists/murderers/armed robbers/embezzlers/spouse beaters/order of protection violating stalkers/people who REFUSE drug treatment while on parole are a different breed.  
    The average prison sentence for homicide is four years; for murder it is eight years, at least as per the American Academy of Forensic Psychiatry review course.  Who is to say that some prisoners don't need LONGER sentences?

    Excellent sentiments... (none / 0) (#5)
    by kdog on Tue Aug 04, 2009 at 08:05:30 AM EST
    lets see if congress and the executive cooperate...sh*t lets see if Holder even believes this stuff or if he was just pandering to the Bar...what I know of his record is contradictory.