The Economist Suggests Ways to Reduce Incarceration

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Between 2010 and 2015 the U.S. incarceration rate fell 8 percent. Far from leading to a surge in crime, this was accompanied by a 15 percent crime drop. The United States is an outlier, but plenty of countries fail to use prison intelligently, The Economist reports. There is ample evidence of what works, says the magazine: Reserve prison for the worst offenders. Divert the less scary ones to drug treatment, community service and other penalties that do not mean severing ties with work, family and normality. There are 2.6 million prisoners around the world, a quarter of the total, who are awaiting trial. For a small fraction of the cost of locking them up, they could be fitted with GPS-enabled ankle bracelets that monitor where they are and whether they are taking drugs.

Tagging can also be used as an alternative to locking up convicts—a “prison without walls,” to quote Mark Kleiman of New York University, who estimates that as many as half of U.S. prisoners could be released and tagged. A study in Argentina finds that low-risk prisoners who are tagged instead of being incarcerated are less likely to reoffend, probably because they remain among normal folk instead of sitting idly in a cage with sociopaths. Justice systems could do far more to rehabilitate prisoners. Cognitive behavioral therapy—counseling prisoners on how to avoid the places, people and situations that prompt them to commit crimes—can reduce recidivism by 10 to 30 percent, and is especially useful in dealing with young offenders. It is also cheap, yet by one estimate, only 5 percent of prisoners have access to it. Some states do much better than others at rehabilitation. Oregon, which insists that programs to reform felons are measured for effectiveness, has recidivism rates at less than half than in California.

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