By Marie Owens
Increasing the Use of House Arrest
While our federal and local governments teeter on the brink of financial collapse, lawmakers at every level are scrambling to bring their exploding budgets under control. According to Darrell Issa, Chairman of the House Committee of Oversight, fraud, waste and abuse account for around 7 percent of all government spending. Things are no different on local levels. Santa Clara County Supervisor George Shirakawa Jr. overspent his $1 million-plus office budget by $87,500. In fact, there isn’t a state in America that isn’t in debt. However, exasperated taxpayers are tired of funding such squandering, and are demanding spending cuts. So while they consider the obvious financial inequities of their spending, consider the potential savings that can be created by something a bit more obscure.
Beginning in the 1970s the federal government, and nearly every state legislative body, has enacted a variety of mandatory sentencing policies, which primarily targeted drug offenses and other non-violent crimes. Additionally, there was also the institution of such initiatives as the “three strikes and you’re out” laws. As anyone with a criminal justice degree will tell you, it is due to these tougher sentencing policies that the United States currently incarcerates a higher share of its population than any other country in the world.
According to data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the prison population rose 380 percent from 1980 to 2008. In the meantime, the United States Census data revealed that the nation’s population rose only 33 percent during the same period. Comparatively speaking, the number of people incarcerated in state and federal facilities has grown ten times faster than the rate of our entire population. In 2008, the U.S. correctional system held over 2.3 million inmates. Of those, 60 percent were non-violent offenders. With an incarceration rate of 753 prisoners per every 100,000 people in 2008, there has been about a 240 percent increase of the number of people in prison since 1980. Thus the fact that we have passed into our third decade of these mandatory sentencing policies and have seen incarceration levels raise rather than diminish, it is fair to conclude that these laws have failed.
According to Public Agenda:
The underlying problem is that American society is too lenient with violent criminals, thereby encouraging lawlessness. Serious crimes deserve serious punishment, no matter who commits them. Whether criminals are youths or adults and whether the crime is a first offense or a subsequent offense it must be punished unequivocally. The most promising solution is to get tougher with all criminals, to step up enforcement efforts, impose longer jail and prison sentences, and build more prisons.
Conversely, statistics seem to suggest that the dramatic increase of the combined state and federal prison populations has more to do with these new tough on crime policy changes than demographics. Despite an overall drop in crime rates, prison populations are on the rise. More succinctly put, were it not for these no-tolerance sentencing guidelines, 60.9 percent of the prisoners being supported by taxpayers in state or federal facilities would have otherwise been given an alternative sentence.
At a cost of roughly $30,000 per prisoner, it costs American taxpayers approximately $70 billion per year to confine and care for its prisoners. Unfortunately, these infuriating figures account only for the expense of feeding, housing, guarding and providing health care for the inmates. Additional revenue is lost in the community when prisoners are not working, paying taxes and supporting their local economy. However, there is a unique alternative to simply sending criminals to their taxpayer funded rooms. It’s called: house arrest.
In Raleigh, North Carolina, parents who don’t pay child support often wind up in overcrowded jails. Ironically, incarcerating the offender further precludes them from working in order to meet their parental obligation, effectively making the law-abiding citizens pay inmate support through taxes. However, Wake County District Court Judge Kristin Ruth is successfully using house arrest to turn deadbeat parents into paying parents. Where the average cost to taxpayers to support a North Carolina inmate is $65.29 per day, the daily cost for house arrest is a mere $9.39.
In Atlanta, Georgia, despite billions being spent on prison systems that are supposed to help rehabilitate them, over 40 percent of ex-cons are re-incarcerated for another crime within three years of their release. Even while funding for corrections departments has increased, from $30 billion to $52 billion in only ten years, recidivism rates continue to rise on a staggering average of 43 percent. In an effort to defray the expenses associated with house arrest programs, many states actually require offenders to pay a portion of the cost. In Ohio, offenders sentenced to house arrest must pay $5 per day to allay the burden they place on taxpayers. In Alaska, their adjudicated reprobates must pay $14. Frequently, offenders are even made responsible for covering the cost for installation of the electronic monitoring equipment and the expense of required drug testing.
The largest house arrest program in the country is Florida’s Community Control Program. Established in 1983 this program handled 20,000 offenders by 1990. Community parolees are required to support themselves and their families. They must also perform community service, pay restitution and supervision fees of $30-$50 per month. In addition, they must maintain a log of their daily activities and comply with restrictions on their movement. Program evaluation indicates that over 50 percent of the offenders would have otherwise gone to prison at the expense of taxpayers while the rest would have been placed on probation.
Of course, the key to success with house arrest programs is to target the appropriate offenders. While clearly an inappropriate alternative for violent criminals, statistics show that house arrest is working for first-time and non-violent offenders. With proper surveillance and treatment, participants in this alternative program are more likely to learn their lesson and come out as productive members of society. While home detention programs are not perfect, the current method of mass incarceration is clearly dysfunctional and costly. Perhaps it is time to examine this alternative with greater scrutiny and consideration. After all, it is the criminals who should be paying for their crimes, not the taxpayers who are forced to support them in jail.
As a prospective law student in Washington state, Marie Owens is particularly interested in criminal law and gender issues. She writes to promote criminal justice education, and teaches martial arts in her spare time.