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Message from Percy Pitzer

February 6, 2019 5:46 pm

We’ve Got a Lot More Steps to Take in Corrections!

With the recent passage of the First Step Act by Congress we finally have some attention being paid to the massive federal prison system, but the step is a small one and much more needs to be done to fix our country’s over reliance on incarceration. I’ve spent over 45 years in corrections working my way up from a Correctional Officer to a Warden and watched as the federal prison system grew from fewer than 40,000 prisoners to over 200,000, with many of the state prison populations following suit. The First Step Act is a positive move, but it will reduce the federal prison population by less than 8% and will have no impact at all on the other 2 million state prisoners and 6 million people under correctional supervision of some form.

Modifying sentencing laws, improving good time incentives for program completions, and investing in re-entry programs are all very positive steps, but the effects will be marginal. We need major steps that address current and future prison populations and that also deal with moving away from incarceration as the default response to community problems.

We need to completely re-look at the basis for prison sentences. No business would make costly decisions without understanding the costs associated with those decisions and examining whether those costs are likely to produce the desired payoff. But that is what happens in most prison systems, where sentencing laws are based more on political agendas or emotional responses.

We need a researched-based business model to calculate the benefits compared to costs for different sentencing laws. For example, if a 10 sentence for drug distribution has the desired effects, then why should we give a 15-year sentence for that offense? Those extra five years means that we just added nearly $200,000 in incarceration costs for that one inmate without significant benefit and imposed untold human costs as well. Even though law enforcement is a public safety decision at its core, it is also a fiscal one.

We need to completely re-look at inmate employment during incarceration. Preparing prisoners for reentry through evidence-based programming is a good thing, until returning offenders face the reluctance of employers to hire them, the low paying opportunities presented to them, and the difficulties in finding housing and essential services such as follow-up mental health and drug treatment.

Decades of overcrowding in our prisons means that much of the inmate population works only a few hours a day and much of this is make-work. Prisons industries is the closest thing to “real world” work, but opportunities here are highly limited. We need broader employment during incarceration, in jobs that mirror those in the community and that provide inmates a sense of self-worth and better transition upon return.

The solution is public private partnerships (with eyes wide open to the 19th century abuses of prison labor), that allow private sector companies inside. Prison employment would be better served by a for-profit mentality that will actively seek markets that do not impact US workers, create a more realistic work environment for prisoners and be driven to be productive and employ as many inmates as practicable.

To enhance the realism of the work experience, we should consider paying prisoners community wage rates to work and require that they pay for their lodging in addition to child support, court ordered fines, and restitution and save some money for their return home.

Most importantly we need make community investments to attack some of the underlying issues that contribute to incarceration rates – particularly drug addiction and mental illness. Police departments and the criminal justice system are not the ideal solutions to these issues, and prison is certainly not the ideal environment for treating the high incidence of mental illness and addiction in our prison populations. We need to invest in community treatment up front to head off the root causes of some incarceration instead of continuing to spend billions a year annually in back-end incarceration costs.

We also need to invest in the 1.7 million children who have one or more parents who are incarcerated. Research indicates that these children are five times more likely to end in prison than their peers. There is a great concern that we will have long term inter-generational incarceration.

Small investments in these children will pay human and financial dividends for decades. This is why I founded the Creative Corrections Education Foundation (www.creativecorrectionseducationfoundation.org) that provides scholarship money directly to vocational schools, community colleges and universities where children of incarcerated parents attend.

I’m sure there are many other steps that can be discussed that need to be taken. The key is to keep the momentum going from the First Step.

Percy Pitzer, Creative Corrections Education Foundation
Former Warden
Federal Bureau of Prisons