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Thinking about alternatives to incarceration

We have previously written about the fact that high rates of incarceration negatively impact taxpayers. Alternatives to incarceration are traditionally much less expensive than imprisoning individuals. In addition, studies show that incarcerating low-level, non-violent offenders often does them, their families and society as a whole far more bad than good. As a result, it is time for federal and state lawmakers to get serious about utilizing alternatives to imprisonment in order to hold low-level, non-violent and non-habitual criminal offenders accountable for their actions.

For example, drug treatment and transition assistance are much more likely to keep individuals convicted of low-level and non-violent drug offenses from reoffending than imprisonment is. Some critics may be concerned that aiding offenders in any way circumvents the purpose of the criminal justice system. But at its heart, the justice system does not aim to disproportionately punish individuals who have committed criminal acts. It seeks to hold them accountable for their actions, deter further criminal activity and to protect public safety.

If alternatives to imprisonment can accomplish these very aims with certain groups of criminal offenders and save taxpayers money at the same time, why wouldn’t federal and state lawmakers seriously pursue alternatives in certain situations?

Though Colorado certainly could benefit from less crowded prisons and more alternatives to incarceration, the state most deeply affected by overcrowded prisons is currently California. In that state alone, $1 billion annually is being spent on trying out various successful alternatives to incarceration. Can you imagine what kind of successful reforms Colorado could begin embracing even if only a significant fraction of this amount was spent on alternatives to locking its residents away?

Source: New York Times, “America on Probation,” Bill Keller, Jan. 26, 2014

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