Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Levin: Britain's Conservative Party pushing incentive-based prison models similar to Texas' probation reforms

One of the reasons I track jail overcrowding around the state is that many counties face the same problems, so it makes sense to compare different solutions that arise and share them with others facing the same challenges. Similarly, Texas' prison system isn't alone in facing an overcrowding crisis. Other states and even other countries face essentially the same dilemma (though usually on a lesser scale).

Marc Levin from the Texas Public Policy Foundation has an op ed column in the Fort Worth Star Telegram today ("Getting more out of Texas prisons," June 10) calling for use of incentive-based funding for prisons, probation and parole departments aimed at reducing recidivism.

Leaders from the Texas Capitol to European houses of parliament are increasingly recognizing that reducing recidivism is crucial to controlling future incarceration costs and the incalculable human costs to victims and communities from criminal activity. This realization inspired a 111-page manifesto released in March by England's Conservative Party, titled Prisons with a Purpose: Our Sentencing and Rehabilitation Revolution to Break the Cycle of Crime.

The plan would fund prisons partly based on their results. A basic tier of funding would keep the lights on at prisons and parole offices, while a second tier of funding would be based on performance, primarily measured by recidivism within several years of release.

See the full paper from Britain's Conservative Party, "Prisons with a Purpose" (pdf), which opined that:
Overcrowding is the key cause of failure in the current prison system. By overburdening the prison estate, it inhibits the process of rehabilitation and attempts to reduce re-offending. British prisons have often in the past reached near to maximum capacity. However, never before has its capacity been exceeded. Prison overcrowding has now reached dangerous levels. At the end of January 2008, 85 out of 143 prisons were overcrowded, and more than 15 prisons were above the total number each could safely and securely hold.
The Conservative Party said overcrowding reduces prisoners access to rehabilitative programming and increases both suicides and a variety of misbehaviors by prisoners, from minor disturbances to violence. Prison crowding also causes "churn," said the CP, meaning "Prisoners are moved to the available space, which means frequent moves from prison to prison. An inmate’s ability to settle in, maintain links with his family, establish a stable regime or receive continuous training and educational programmes is significantly reduced." The report continues:
Whether offenders serve their sentences in the community or in custody, there should be a far stronger focus on rehabilitation. Community sentences must contain an element of punishment which is enforced – but they should also ensure that offenders get off drugs or alcohol dependency, and get into the world of work. Equally, prisons should be places of education, hard work, rehabilitation and restoration. ... Offenders leaving custody, especially short-term prisoners, need support to get resettled and find work.
Levin picks up on the Conservative Party's incentives idea to argue for expanding incentive-based private prison contracts, but he also likens the approach to the probation policies promoted over the last couple of sessions by House Corrections Committee Chairman Jerry Madden and Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chairman John Whitmire: Using incentives to encourage policy changes at local probation departments. Writes Levin:

Probation is also well suited to pay-for-performance. Since 2005, $55 million in [Texas] state probation funding has been incentive-based.

County probation departments are eligible if they adopt progressive sanctions and pledge to reduce their technical revocations -- prison referrals that result from missing meetings, failing drug tests and other probation violations not related to a new conviction.

Progressive sanctions prior to a technical revocation include increased reporting, community service, curfews, electronic monitoring, mandatory treatment and overnight jail stays intended to remind someone on probation of what's at stake.

Participating departments have reduced their technical revocations by 16 percent, while nonparticipating departments increased technical revocations by 8 percent.

Had all departments increased revocations by 8 percent, another 2,640 probationers would have been sent back to prison at a cost of $119 million, not including the construction cost of additional prisons.

Departments receiving the funding used most of it to reduce caseloads of probationers per supervising officer from 150 to about 110.

Texas should build on the success of this initiative. Performance-based probation funding should include rewards for high rates of employment; educational and vocational degrees and certificates earned; and restitution and child support payment. It should also include penalties for new offenses based on their severity. And counties should be rewarded, not penalized, for handling high-maintenance offenders on probation.

Measuring correctional outcomes is challenging, but if the state just pays based on the number of bodies behind bars or on probation rolls, taxpayers will indeed get what they pay for: an ever-growing system that recycles more offenders than it reforms.

To be sure, Texas and Britain are different places (and not just because our state prison system is nearly three times as large as theirs, while their overall population is nearly three times as large as ours). Texas' three-year recidivism rate is half that of Britain's, and our community supervision system is many times larger, with much longer probation and parole terms.

Still it's fascinating and instructive to see that the "conservative" solutions proposed in Great Britain are essentially similar in theme and often substance to new laws passed at the Texas Legislature during a period of GOP control. These ideological and legal trends make me hopeful that, slowly but surely, our friends on the right are ceasing to view the terms "conservative" and "tuff on crime" as synonyms.


Anonymous said...

Thing is, the Conservatives arent in power here so they can say whatever they like but until they get their foot in the door again and have access to the financial stuff in order to work out if they can actually afford their plans, its all pie in the sky.

The Local Crank said...

Well, thank God Texas is exporting its policy-making genius to the world...

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Hey, crankman, I supported all those Madden-Whitmire reforms. They could do worse!

Jim Stott said...

Thank God Texas at least has the initiative to establish a policy.

Anonymous said...

The report also calls for building more prisons in the UK, which we all know is a failed correctional policy.