How to Cut Crime and End America’s Mass Incarceration

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The great American crime wave is over. Since peaking in the late 1980s and 1990s, murder rates have plunged, and many cities have seen drops ranging from 60 percent to almost 90 percent. Fears that a slight rise in violence in 2015 and 2016 heralded a reversal of the trend proved unfounded, and crime declined in 2017.

The tremendous reduction in crime is finally being followed by a fall in incarceration. Since its peak in 2008, the percent of Americans in prison or jail has fallen by about 14 percent:

Meanwhile, the reduction in incarceration among young men, especially young black men, has been much larger, signaling that the pace of the decline is only getting started. And states that reduced jail and prison populations haven’t seen crime rise, meaning it’s unlikely the policies that led to the decline will be reversed.

But the decrease in incarceration has been much smaller for men above the age of 35. And for men over 40, incarceration rates have actually risen. This could be because older people are simply more criminally inclined, perhaps because of lead exposure during their youth. But a likelier culprit is recidivism. People who get out of prison tend to end up back there; some sources put the recidivism rate as high as 77 percent after five years.

This points to a fundamental problem in the way that American society handles ex-convicts. Instead of turning people into productive members of society, the system is funneling one-time criminals to a permanent life of crime.

And that’s a very bad thing, for a number of reasons. First, it means more crime in American society. Second, it makes it very hard to reduce prison headcounts, which are a big expense for state governments. And third, it condemns criminals themselves to an unpleasant, often violent life. Finding a way to break the cycle of crime and imprisonment is therefore an essential part of ending the era of mass incarceration, as well as making American society safer.

Although some ex-convicts are simply irredeemably criminal individuals, for many, the problem is simply finding a job. A 2014 report by economist Steven Raphael of the University of California-Berkeley explains why jobs are so important for turning ex-cons away from a life of crime:

Stable employment is of central importance to the successful reentry of former inmates into noninstitutionalized society...[A]voiding material poverty requires gainful employment...[T]he likelihood of committing crime depends to some extent on having something to lose...[Ex-cons need] the opportunity to transition into [the role of] law-abiding citizens...[and] formal employment provides daily structure and a sense of purpose.

Unfortunately, getting a job after getting out of prison is very difficult. There’s the obvious problem of adverse selection — who wants to hire someone who went to prison? There’s also the fact that ex-cons have seen their job skills and human networks decay while serving time.

The difficulty ex-cons have in finding a job isn’t just increasing crime, destroying lives and overloading prisons — as my Bloomberg Opinion colleague Justin Fox has written, it’s probably hurting the economy as well, by lowering labor force participation rates.

So it’s important to help ex-convicts get jobs. But how to do it? In a recent review of the evidence, economist Jennifer Doleac of Texas A&M University tackles that question. She finds that while for many policies intended to help ex-cons, the results are inconclusive, there are a few that stand out as more effective — and a few that are clearly ineffective or even harmful.

One seemingly good policy is rehabilitation certificates. When a court certifies a former prisoner as having been rehabilitated, it sends a signal to employers that this isn’t one of the scary ex-convicts they might have a picture of in their mind.

A second policy is therapy. Cognitive behavioral therapy, which has been shown to be effective in treating various psychological disorders, also appears to be useful for helping ex-convicts adjust. A third idea is DNA databases. When an ex-con’s DNA is on record, it appears to act as a deterrent to future criminal activity.

Doleac surveys a wide variety of other programs that might help ex-cons get jobs. These include things like job-placement services, training, housing assistance, addiction treatment, and helping to educate and reassure employers about potential employees’ criminal records. All of these are ideas that need more real-world trials, so that researchers can evaluate how well they work.

Sadly, there are some policies that either don’t seem to have any effect, or even cause unintended and negative consequences. Placing employees in transitional jobs gives ex-cons some income for a while, but that doesn’t make them less likely to wind up back in prison. Meanwhile, a policy called ban the box, which prohibits employers from asking about criminal records, probably does nothing to help ex-cons, and leads to greater racial discrimination against black and Hispanic job applicants.

Governments should focus on implementing the techniques that work, avoiding those that don’t and experimenting with the rest. The age of America’s mass incarceration is winding down, but smart policy can make it end faster. That means doing a lot more to turn former criminals back into productive, working members of society.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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