Evaluating the Role of Incarceration in Public Safety with Criminologist Damon Petrich
Release Date: 04/19/2022
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On this Hacks & Wonks midweek show, Crystal has a robust conversation with Damon Petrich about his research at the School of Criminal Justice at the University of Cincinnati. As lead author of the seminal work “Custodial Sanctions and Reoffending: A Meta-Analytic Review,” Damon performed an extensive analysis of 116 research studies looking at the effect of incarceration on reoffending. The review’s finding that the oft-used policy of imprisonment does not reduce the likelihood of recidivism sparks a discussion about how the United States ended up as the world leader in mass incarceration and the disconnect between conventional assumptions about what prisons provide versus reality. Noting that the carceral system does a poor job of rehabilitation - while eating up budgets across the country and exacting significant societal costs - Damon and Crystal talk about how to design and evaluate programs that do work to deliver greater public safety for everyone.
As always, a full text transcript of the show is available below and at officialhacksandwonks.com.
“Custodial Sanctions and Reoffending: A Meta-Analytic Review” by Damon M. Petrich, Travis C. Pratt, Cheryl Lero Johnson, and Francis T. Cullen for Crime and Justice: https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/10.1086/715100
Scott Hechinger Twitter thread: https://twitter.com/ScottHech/status/1447596444886523911
“Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2022” by Wendy Sawyer and Peter Wagner from the Prison Policy Initiative: https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/pie2022.html
“Risk-need-responsivity model for offender assessment and rehabilitation” by James Bonta and D. A. Andrews for Public Safety Canada: https://www.publicsafety.gc.ca/cnt/rsrcs/pblctns/rsk-nd-rspnsvty/index-en.aspx
“Let’s Take a Hard Look at Who Is in Jail and Why We Put Them There” by Alea Carr for the ACLU-WA blog: https://www.aclu-wa.org/blog/let-s-take-hard-look-who-jail-and-why-we-put-them-there
Book - “Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect” by Robert J. Sampson: https://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/G/bo5514383.html
Byrne Criminal Justice Innovation Program - “Police Legitimacy and Legal Cynicism: Why They Matter and How to Measure in Your Community”: https://www.lisc.org/media/filer_public/05/0b/050ba3aa-044f-4676-bc1e-6e2b6c48412c/091317_bcji_resources_police_legitimacy_fundamentals.pdf
“Polls Show People Favor Rehabilitation over Incarceration” by Matt Clarke for Prison Legal News: https://www.prisonlegalnews.org/news/2018/nov/6/polls-show-people-favor-rehabilitation-over-incarceration/
[00:00:00] Crystal Fincher: Welcome to Hacks & Wonks. I'm Crystal Fincher, and I'm a political consultant and your host. On this show, we talk with policy wonks and political hacks to gather insight into local politics and policy in Washington state through the lens of those doing the work with behind-the-scenes perspectives on what's happening, why it's happening, and what you can do about it. Full transcripts and resources referenced in the show are always available at officialhacksandwonks.com and in our episode notes.
Well, I am excited to welcome Damon Petrich, who's a doctoral associate in the School of Criminal Justice at University of Cincinnati and incoming assistant professor at Loyola University Chicago. He was the lead author of a recent article, "Custodial Sanctions and Reoffending: A Meta-Analytic Review," along with Travis Pratt, Cheryl Lero Johnson, Francis T. Cullen. Damon's research focuses on the effectiveness of corrections and rehabilitation programs, desistance from crime, and the impact of community violence on youth development. Thank you so much for joining us, Damon.
[00:01:13] Damon Petrich: Thank you very much for having me on, Crystal. I'm excited to talk a little bit about my work and the implications of that and all that, so thanks again.
[00:01:20] Crystal Fincher: I'm very excited to talk about this and it's extremely timely - has been for a while. We have conversations almost every day in the public sphere having to do with public safety - this is such a major component of it. And so I'm hoping as we have this conversation, it'll help us to better assess what the costs and benefits are of custodial sanctions and incarceration, and alternatives to that - to have a conversation that kind of orients us more towards public safety. Sometimes we're so concerned with metrics around police and how many they are, and what the length of a sentence should be. And sometimes we focus on things that take us off of the overall goal of keeping us all safer and reducing the likelihood that each of us are victimized and to hopefully prevent people from becoming victims of crime. And just to have accurate conversations about how we invest our public resources - what we're actually getting from them, and then how to evaluate as we go along - what we should be tracking and measuring and incentivizing. As so many people talk about taking data-driven approaches and create all these dashboards - that we're really doing it from an informed perspective. So just to start out - what actually were you studying and what were you seeking to find out?
[00:02:47] Damon Petrich: Yeah, so the main purpose of our meta-analysis, which I can explain exactly what that is later on if you have questions, but the main purpose was to understand what happens when you take one group of offenders and you sentence them to something custodial like prison or jail, and then you sentence another group of similar offenders to something non-custodial like probation. How do those two groups differ in terms of whether they reoffend? So does prison actually deter recidivism, or does it make people more likely to commit crime afterwards? So that's sort of what we were looking at and so we considered all of the available research on that, in this review.
[00:03:29] Crystal Fincher: Got it. So right now we have gone down the path of mass incarceration - that is the default punishment that we, as society, have looked to for crime. Hey - sentence them and many times it's, Hey, they're going to jail. Sometimes they get out of jail and they have supervision that continues, but jail is really focused, where we focus a lot of our effort and where we put people and hope that that'll straighten them out and they come out and everything is fine. How did we get here and where are we in terms of how we're approaching incarceration in our society, in our country?
[00:04:11] Damon Petrich: Yeah, so there is a lot of public uproar around a lot of issues, like race issues, and there was crime spikes and concerns over social welfare - and there's all this confluence of issues in the '60s and early '70s. And we decided to - as a country, not everyone, but politicians decided that we should tackle the crime problem by A) incarcerating more people, and then B) once they get there, keep them there for longer. So we enacted things like mandatory minimum sentences, where the judge really has no discretion over what happens - the person gets automatically a sentence of incarceration if they've committed a certain type of crime. You had habitual offender laws where if you're - like California's three strikes policy - where if you have two prior felonies and you get a third, no matter what it is, you're going to jail for life. Michigan had the "650 Lifer Law," where if you get caught with 650 grams of heroin or cocaine, you're automatically going to prison for life. And then we got rid of parole and stuff like that in a lot of states.
So all these things lead to more people going to jail and then for longer, and those laws came to be in the '70s and '80s. And over that time, our incarceration rate ballooned up by about 700%, so by the early 2000s, we were at over 2 million people incarcerated and another 7-8 million people on probation or parole. So it's a pretty big expansion - the United States has 5% of the world's population and a quarter, or 25%, of the prisoners, so it's a little ridiculous. The crime rate here isn't nearly as high, or nearly high enough to justify that huge disparity. So yeah, it's a whole confluence of factors led us to be the world leader in incarceration.
[00:06:14] Crystal Fincher: And what attitudes or what justifications are the people who have the power to enact these policies and continue these policies - how are they justifying them?
[00:06:25] Damon Petrich: So there's a few reasons why you might want to incarcerate somebody. One is just because you want to punish them or get revenge on them, so that's more of a moral reason. But the main focus of politicians were twofold - one was incapacitation, so that one means that because you're keeping somebody locked up in a cage, obviously they can't be out in the community committing crimes. So the thought is that you're going to reduce crime that way. The research on that is a little squishy even now, and I can talk a little bit more about that later if you want. But the other reason, and the one that we focused on in our review, was that prison deters people from going back to crime after they get out. So the idea there is that prison sucks - you go in there, you're cut off from your job, from your family, from your friends, or from just having hobbies or things to do. And you're not going to want to go back, so when you get out of prison - you think real hard, and you think how much prison sucks, and you decide not to go back to crime. That's the thinking behind that deterrence hypothesis anyway.
So those two - incapacitation and deterrence - were the main drivers of those increase in laws and stuff during the '70s, '80s, and '90s, but there really wasn't any evidence for either of them - in the '70s and '80s in particular. So most of the research evaluating whether prison actually does deter recidivism has popped up over the last 25 years or so.
[00:08:05] Crystal Fincher: And as you took a look at it - all of the studies that have popped up over the past 25 years had varying degrees of rigor and scientific validity. But as that body of research grew, people began to get a better idea of whether incarceration actually does reduce someone's likelihood of reoffending. How big was that body of work, in terms of studies, and what were you able to look at?
[00:08:40] Damon Petrich: So in our particular review, we looked at 116 studies, which is a pretty sizable number. Most people - when you read through an article and a literature review might have 10 studies or something that they just narratively go through, but we looked at 116. And then within those 116 studies, there were 981 statistical models. So 901 different comparisons - or 981 different comparisons - of what happens to custodial versus non-custodial groups. So we looked at a pretty big chunk of literature.
[00:09:20] Crystal Fincher: And in that, in the reliance of - that's a really big number - and I think, people now are maybe more familiar, just from a layperson's perspective, of just how big that number is. As we've seen throughout this pandemic that we're in the middle of, studies come out - people are looking at one study, and wow - study number two comes out and we're feeling really good about it. And man, we get to five studies and people are like, okay, we know what's going on. To get beyond a hundred is just a real comprehensive body of study and analysis. What were you able to determine from that?
[00:10:05] Damon Petrich: So I should probably explain upfront what a meta-analysis is and why it's useful. So like you were just saying - like in the COVID pandemic, for example - one study will come out and it'll say, oh, Ivermectin reduces symptomatic COVID cases by X percent. And then the next study will come out and say, Ivermectin makes people way worse. So any individual study can be kind of misleading.
A good analogy for what a meta-analysis does would be to look at baseball, for example. So let's say you're interested in some rookie player that's just come out, he's just joined Major League Baseball and you go to his - you want to know how good this player actually is? You've never seen him play, you've only heard rumors. So you go out to his first game, he gets up to bat four times and he gets no hits. So you walk away from that game thinking, wow, this player is terrible, the team wasted all their money recruiting and paying this guy's salary. But that could have just been an off game for many reasons - it's his debut game so maybe there's just first-game nerves, maybe the weather was bad, maybe he was having personal problems in his life, or he had a little bit of an injury. So there's a number of reasons why looking at his performance from that one game is not going to be representative of who he is as a player. Ideally, you'd want to look at all the games over a season where he might go up to bat 250 times. And over those 250 times, he gets 80 hits, which is a pretty good batting average - it's over .300. So with that amount of data, you could come to a more solid conclusion of whether he's actually a good player or not.
And with that amount of data, you could also look at what we call moderating characteristics. So you could look at, for example, whether he plays better when it's an away game or in a home game, whether it's early or late season - you could look at all these sorts of things. So this is essentially what we're doing with research as well, in a meta-analysis.
So if you look at studies on incarceration - one might show increases in recidivism after people go to prison, the next might show decreases, and the next might show that probationers and prisoners reoffend at about the same rates. So just like in the baseball analogy, in a meta-analysis, we're looking at all of the available research. We're combining it together and determining A) what the sort of overall or average effect of incarceration is, and then B) whether these moderating characteristics actually matter. So in other words, is the effect of incarceration pretty much the same for males as it is for females, or for juveniles as adults, or when the research design is really good versus when it's not so great. So that's basically what we did in this meta-analysis is again - looked at 116 studies and from those 981 statistical estimates.
[00:13:13] Crystal Fincher: Very helpful. Totally makes sense with the baseball analogy, and I especially appreciate breaking down with all the statistical models and not just kind of thumbs up, thumbs down - the binary - it either increases or reduces the likelihood of recidivism. But under what conditions are - might it be more likely, less likely that someone does? What are some of those influencing effects on what happens? And so you were just talking about the justification that people used going into this, and now that we have data coming out - does it turn out that people go into prison or are incarcerated in jail, they think - wow, this is horrible. Some in society are like the more uncomfortable we make it in jail, the better we want to make sure it's a place that they never would want to come back to - that it's so scary and such a bad experience that they are just scared straight for the rest of their lives. Does it actually turn out to be that way? Do they take a rational look at - this was my experience, I don't want to go back again, therefore I will not do any of the things that I did going in.
[00:14:28] Damon Petrich: I would not say that's the conclusion - no. So again, based on the 116 studies that we looked at, which is again a lot, people who are sentenced to incarceration - so jail, prison - they commit crime, they reoffend at about the same rates as if you'd sentence those same people to probation. So in other words, they're not being deterred by being sent to prison. These effects are the same for both males and females. So in other words, prison doesn't reduce reoffending for one group versus the other. It's the same whether we look at adults versus juveniles, it's the same regardless of what type of recidivism we're interested in - rearrests or convictions. It's pretty much the same across the board. There's some slight variations in research designs, but even within those, prison either has no effect or it slightly increases recidivism. We don't find any conditions under which prison is reducing reoffending or deterring these people from going back to those lives.
[00:15:35] Crystal Fincher: So from a societal perspective, a lot of people kind of make the assumption that, Hey, we arrest and we incarcerate someone - whew, our streets are safer. They get out, and now they can choose to reintegrate themselves into society hopefully - they do and we're all safer because of it. But it looks like impressions that some people may have that, Hey, we're letting someone off easy. And suggestions - there's so much media coverage around this - and suggestions that because we're letting people off easy, that we're making it easier for them to reoffend, or they don't feel sufficiently punished enough and so that becomes an incentive to reoffend. Does that seem like it tracks with what the studies have shown?
[00:16:33] Damon Petrich: Not really - so there's some studies that actually ask prisoners and offenders whether they'd prefer going to prison or probation. And a lot of them will say, oh, I'd rather do a year in prison than spend two or three years on probation. So it's not like they view probation as just being super easy. And they're not saying this because they received time off their sentence for being in the study or anything like that. Probation's not easy either - and you have to also think that while these people are on probation, they're able to stay in close touch with their family, they're able to maintain connections with work or find work, they're able to participate in the community, they can pay taxes - that I know a lot of people who are pro-prison love.
So there's all sorts of reasons why - beyond just them reoffending at the same rates as if they'd gone to prison - there's a lot of reasons why we might want to keep these people in the community. And it's not like we're saying, let everybody out of prison - so the nature of this research - you want to compare apples to apples. So in this research, comparing prisoners to probationers - these have to be people who are getting - they could either legitimately get a sentence of jail or probation, or prison or probation. So these are going to be first-time offenders, people who are relatively low-level - they've committed low-level crimes and all that. So we're not saying - there's not going to be a situation where a murderer just gets probation - that sort of thing. So I know that might be a concern of some people - they think that's a natural argument of this analysis, but it's really not.
[00:18:24] Crystal Fincher: Well, and to your point, we're really talking - if we're looking at all of the crime that gets people sentenced to prison time, a very small percentage of that is murder. A very small percentage of it is on that kind of scale - you can wind up in jail or prison for a wide variety of offenses - many of them, people perceive as relatively minor or that people might be surprised can land you in prison. Or if someone has committed a number of minor offenses, that can stack up - to your point in other situations - and increase the length of detention or the severity of the consequences. As we're looking through this and the conversation of, okay, so, we sentence them, we let them out - it's not looking like there's a difference between jail or community supervisions, things like probation - what is it about jail that is harmful or that is not helpful? What is it about the structure of our current system that doesn't improve recidivism outcomes for people?
[00:19:42] Damon Petrich: Probably the main one is the rehabilitation is not the greatest. So just as an example, substance abuse is a very strong predictor whether people are going to reoffend, unsurprisingly. About 50% of prisoners at the state and federal level in The States meet the DSM [Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders] criteria for having a substance use abuse disorder - so they meet the clinical criteria for substance abuse disorder. So half of them, and then more than that just use substances, but they don't meet the criteria for a disorder. But of that 50% who has a substance abuse disorder, only about 20% of those actually receives treatment for it while they're incarcerated. So, you're not dealing with a root cause of reoffending while they're in prison - so you're not deterring them, but you're also not rehabilitating them - so you're really not doing anything.
And then in the rare cases where these people are provided with rehabilitation or reentry programming, it's often not based on any sort of evidence-based model of how you actually change people. So there's a lot of psychological and criminology theory and research on how you actually elicit behavioral change, and these programs really aren't in line with any of that. And I could give examples if you wanted, but -
[00:21:17] Crystal Fincher: Sure. I think that's helpful, 'cause I think a lot of people do assume, and sometimes it's been controversial - wow, look at how much they're coddling these prisoners - they have these educational programs, and they get all this drug treatment for free, and if they don't come out fixed then it's their own fault because they have access to all of these treatment resources in prison. Is that the case?
[00:21:43] Damon Petrich: No, I wouldn't say so - first of all, they don't have access, a lot of them, to any programs. And then, like I said, the programs that they do get really aren't that effective. So the big one that everybody loves to argue for is providing former inmates with jobs. If you look at any federal funding for program development, like the Second Chance Act or the First Step Act - I think that was one under Trump - and then under Bush, there was a Serious [and] Violent Offenders Reentry Initiative - pretty much all of these federal bills will be heavily focused on just providing offenders with jobs. And almost all of the evaluations of these programs show that they don't reduce reoffending.
And it's not really that hard - again, if you go back to the literature on behavioral change and, criminology literature - it's not really that hard to understand why just providing a job isn't going to reduce or lead somebody away from a life of crime. A lot of these people have spotty work histories where they've never had a job at all, they believe and know that it's easier to gain money by doing illicit work than it is legal work, they have things like low self-control so they're very impulsive, they don't know how to take criticism or being told what to do by a boss. They live in neighborhoods with very poor opportunities for good jobs and education, and maybe there's a mindset around there that illegal work or whatever is just a better way to go - that's sort of ingrained. So there's a lot of different reasons why just handing somebody a job isn't going to lead them away from crime, 'cause they have all these other things that need to be dealt with first.
So ideally, a rehabilitation program that's comprehensive would deal with all of those other background factors and then provide them with a job. Because if you make them less impulsive, better able to resist the influence of their antisocial friends, and get this thought out of their head that other people are being hostile towards them when they're really not - all these sorts of cognitive and behavioral biases that they have - if you deal with all of those things and then you give them a job, they're more likely to actually latch onto that job as something worthwhile doing. And then they're going to go on to get out of a life of crime. But if you just give them a job and you haven't dealt with any of those issues, you can't really expect that to work. And that is the model that we currently do - is something that we don't really expect to work that well.
[00:24:28] Crystal Fincher: Yeah, that's - it's really interesting and I don't know that a lot of people actually know that, Hey, giving someone a job isn't sufficient - which is why I think it's so important to talk about studies like this, because some of what has become conventional wisdom, really is not accurate or reflects what has been studied and discovered. And I guess in that vein, what are the factors - you just talked about a few - but what does increase someone's likelihood of reoffending or recidivism, and what reduces it?
[00:25:08] Damon Petrich: So those are probably two ends of the same, or two sides of the same coin, but this is pretty well known in criminology - a model called the risk-need-responsivity [RNR] model was developed by a couple of fellow Canadians, named James Bonta and Don Andrews, along with some of their colleagues in the '80s and '90s. And they, through again, other meta-analyses just like we did, found certain categories of characteristics of people who are more likely to reoffend. So you have things like having antisocial peers - so that one's pretty obvious - if you have a bunch of friends that are involved in crime, it's going to be pretty hard for you to get out of that life because you're surrounded by those people. Same with family members. If you have what are called criminal thinking patterns - so again, you might have what's called a hostile attribution bias, things like that, where somebody says something a little bit negative to you and you take that as a huge insult and you retaliate with anger and aggression - things like that. Or being impulsive - so you're again quick to anger, you're swayed by small little enticements in the environment and that sort of thing - so you're easily swayed one way or the other. Things like that are strong predictors of reoffending. Substance abuse - it's what I mentioned earlier. If you don't really have any sort of proactive leisure activities, like hobbies and stuff like that. So there's a bunch of well-known things that we know are strongly associated with recidivism, and a rehabilitation program should ideally deal with them.
Now this model that Andrews and Bonta and all these other people came up with - this RNR risk-need-responsivity model - the risk part says that we should give people a risk assessment when they're entering prison or leaving prison and determine what level of risk are they from reoffending. And we assess these different criteria, like criminal thinking patterns and antisocial friends and substance abuse. So we determine what those factors are and then we design them a treatment program that actually deals with those factors at the individual level. So we're not just giving a blanket rehabilitation program to everybody, and you're providing the most amount of care to the people who most need it or who are the most likely to re-offend.
And then once we've done all that, we need to make sure that we're addressing these problems in some sort of a format that we know actually works. The most well-known one, but not as often used, the most well-known within the sort of psychologist and criminological literature is cognitive behavioral therapy [CBT]. So this is pretty popular for dealing with depression and all sorts of eating disorders and substance abuse problems in non-offender populations. Well, those programs also work in offender populations and they work pretty well. So the research shows - again meta-analyses - that when you deal with all these three factors - risk, need, and responsivity - you can reduce reoffending rates by about 26%. So it's a pretty sizeable amount - it's much greater than you're getting by just sentencing people to prison without doing anything.
[00:28:42] Crystal Fincher: Absolutely, and I think you cover in your paper - those things are absolutely true. And you just talked about several administrations' attempts to implement programming and resources to try and help people get jobs, potentially - hey, there's even a CBT treatment, but if that treatment has twice as many people as are recommended being in a session and occurs over half the time that it's supposed to, you really are sabotaging the entire process or really setting it up for failure. And it just seems to be an expensive exercise that we aren't really getting anything out of. Does that seem to be consistent with how you've seen the attempts at introducing this programming within prisons and jails?
[00:29:40] Damon Petrich: Yeah, for sure - this is a pretty common finding too - so it's not just about preaching that you're going to do these things. You actually have to implement them well. So just like you said, there's a number of studies that show this - so you've designed some really great program that deals with all of these risk factors that lead people back into reoffending, you give it to them in a cognitive behavioral setting. So all seems good on paper, but in practice, like you said - one of the famous studies there - can't remember the names of the authors offhand right now - but one of the famous studies there showed that they're providing it to people in groups of 30, as opposed to 15, and they're delivering it in a really short amount of time. And they're not maybe giving it to the highest-risk people - so they're just mixing random people in there at varying levels of risk. So when you do all these sorts of things - you implement the program poorly - you can't really expect it to work.
And this is often the case - is the government pays people to come up with these great programs, and then not enough funding is provided to actually make sure that they're implemented and evaluated well. So the amount of funding that actually goes into that - developing the programs to begin with - is small, but when you do do that, you're not making sure that you're actually implementing things well. So it's just sort of shooting yourself in the foot, and probably making people come to the conclusion that these things don't work - when they do work, if you just implement them well.
[00:31:17] Crystal Fincher: Yeah, and there's also a lot of rhetoric - and you discuss this - there's a lot of rhetoric coming from the government, even coming from leadership within the Bureau of Prisons or leadership in our carceral system, saying we do want to rehabilitate people. We are trying to implement programming that does this. You see - we have these educational opportunities and we are doing evaluations of people. And it may be happening while they're understaffed or other challenges, but one of the biggest, I guess, red flags is that none of the evaluation of their programs and none of the incentives that arise are in any way tied to what is the actual result of what happens. Are you actually succeeding on reducing someone's likelihood for reoffense? It does not seem like any compensation is tied to that, any kind of evaluation of positions or regular reporting - to say, is this program having its intended effect? And if not, what do we need to do to correct for that? Is that what you found?
[00:32:33] Damon Petrich: I would say that's probably a pretty fair assessment. A lot of the programs that are implemented are never evaluated at all. And then the ones that are - it's usually once - there's one evaluation of those programs. And then, like you said, there doesn't really seem to be a lot of self-reflection - I don't know what other word you would use - but these programs don't really change on the basis of these evaluations. So, it's kind of disheartening to hear about, I guess.
[00:33:14] Crystal Fincher: It feels very disheartening to live in the middle of - and one of the big things about this is that this - we have these conversations and we talk about these studies and we're saying, yeah, it actually - we're not doing anyone any favors right now when it comes to reducing recidivism. And having these conversations oftentimes detached from the cost associated with what we're paying for these. And my goodness are we paying to incarcerate people? It's not just, well, we do lock them up and we keep them away. Or we do a good job of keeping them in - they reoffend, they go back to jail. And lots of people are like, we did our job, they went back to jail - boom, everything is fine.
But we are paying through the nose and out the ear for this - just here, we're in the state of Washington, and right now the state spends about $112 per day, or over $40,000 annually, to incarcerate one individual - that's the cost per inmate. In King County - the county that we're in - they spend $192 a day, or $70,000 annually, to incarcerate an individual. That is a huge amount of the tax dollars that we spend - these come out of our general fund, meaning that these are dollars that every service, everything that is not a dedicated source of revenue, is competing for. So when we talk about things and have conversations like, well, we don't have the budget for that and we don't have the money - that is related to how much of that money we're spending on other things. And my goodness, I would think that we want to get our money's worth for that level of expenditure. And it really appears that if we're saying the goal of jail is to get people on the straight and narrow path and becoming contributing members of society and all of the implications of that, it doesn't seem like we're getting our money's worth. And so, if those aren't the goals and if we just want to punish people, it's not like we're punishing people for free. We're punishing people at the cost of $70,000 per day [year], and at the cost of all the other services and infrastructure needs that we have.
So it really seems like we're punishing ourselves as much, or more, as others - particularly if we're bringing people back into society that are likely to reoffend in one way or another. And so if our goal is to keep our community safe and that is the North Star, it looks like we need to realign our processes and our expenditure of resources. I guess my question to you, after all that, is - how should we be moving forward? What should we be looking to do? What is shown to work?
[00:36:24] Damon Petrich: Well, I would say - yeah, $70,000 a year as just a revenge cost per person seems like a lot. $80 billion in the country as a whole, for a revenge cost, seems like a pretty high price to pay, given we're not reducing reoffending. You could make the argument that these people aren't offending while they're in prison, but that's - there's other reasons why that might not be completely accurate, which I could talk about too, but -
[00:36:59] Crystal Fincher: Well, I'm interested in that. Why might that not be accurate?
[00:37:03] Damon Petrich: So, obviously the person - if you incarcerate a particular individual, obviously they can't be out in the community committing crimes. So that's obvious, but there's a number of reasons why that might not, en masse, actually reduce crime a whole lot. The research on it - this is a little bit squishy - in terms of whether incarcerating more people leads to lower crime rates, because one influences the other. But for example, if you look at illegal drug markets - a lot of the homicides in the United States and other violent crime that people are really concerned about, and it's plastered all over the media is - homicides, gang-related stuff. So if you take key gang members out and you put them in prison, what ends up happening is that there's competition in that market to take over that person's place, either within the gang or other gangs coming in. So what ends up happening oftentimes is a spike in violence. So that's one reason why just incapacitating, particularly high-crime individuals, might not actually lead to lower crime rates overall. Again, you're lowering crime for that one person, but you might be increasing crime on a more systemic level.
Beyond that, these things have broader societal and community level impacts - incarcerating a lot of people. Again, research shows that when you're incarcerating a lot of people in a particular community - so there's a bunch of really good work by Robert Sampson - he has a book that came out a few years ago called Great American City. And he looked at these individual neighborhoods in Chicago over time, and what he finds is that in communities where there's a higher number of people incarcerated in a particular community, this ends up increasing what's called "legal cynicism." And this is done in some other work as well with David Kirk and Andrew Papachristos - but they show that this increases legal cynicism, which means people are skeptical of police helping them out, the police doing a good job. And what ends up happening after that - when people are more cynical of the legal system, they're less likely to report crimes to the police, they're less likely to cooperate with the police. So what ends up happening? You incarcerate more people and people in that community end up being less willing to cooperate with law enforcement. And this leads to sort of an endless cycle where things sort of get out of hand. So there's all these unintended and nonfinancial consequences of incarcerating a lot of people that could potentially end up leading to more crime.
[00:40:03] Crystal Fincher: Well, and - speaking as a Black woman - obviously, looking at the impacts of mass incarceration in the Black community and in neighborhoods around the country - where it is almost like the community is responding to the actual outcome and that, Hey, this actually isn't making my community any better. I'm experiencing traumatic impacts from this - whether it's my relative went to prison or a sole breadwinner in the family and now we're thrown into poverty, or I'm in a situation where I don't have a parent who used to be there - who now is no longer there. Or causing instability and impacting the education that people get and the kind of job opportunity, watching someone who's come out have to struggle and be ostracized. And it looks like, Hey, this is just the first step on a long cycle of traumatic and undesirable events - and I don't want to participate in a system that is doing that.
With that, as we look forward, and I think this is also related to conversations about just fundamental trust in our criminal legal system and relations with police and throughout the system. It's - if we think about how to turn that around - to me, seems related to thinking about the question of how do we get better outcomes for everyone? 'Cause it seems like right now where we're investing a lot in poor outcomes for people who were already, usually, in pretty poor spots leading to themselves being incarcerated, coming out and not necessarily improving, definitely not improving. And if anything, a chance that it gets a little bit worse. How do we change that entire outcome? And I know you're looking specifically in the incarceration space, but what should be, what could be done differently? Or do we just need a fundamental restructuring of the way we do this?
[00:42:17] Damon Petrich: I don't know about a fundamental restructuring - I don't, I'm not great at that high-level thinking stuff, but what I do know is that - we're probably going to continue to incarcerate people. That's something that's done in every country and people seem to love here. So if we actually want to use prison for public safety - because 95% of inmates eventually get out - if we actually want to use it for public safety, then let's actually try wholeheartedly to rehabilitate them while they're in there. And again, there's a lot of theory and evidence-based principles on how we can do this, like the risk-need-responsivity model that I talked about earlier, cognitive behavioral therapy more broadly. If you use these types of things and continue to work on them and develop them over time, then yeah - prison might actually be helpful if people are going there and getting the help that they need. But that's not what's happening currently. So that's one level in incarceration terms - that's the area that I know best.
So that's one way you could potentially alleviate some of this stuff is - if people are actually getting resources and stuff when they're in prison, and then when once they're reintegrating, they're not only going to reoffend less, but maybe they're going to contribute to their community more. They're going to be better able to connect with their family and stuff like that. So rather than being a hindrance, it could potentially be a help. Obviously, again, it's not ideal to remove people from their communities and their family and friends. And like I said earlier, if you have the option to sentence them to something community-based instead, I think that's the better route to go. But if you are going to send people to prison, which I think we're going to continue to do a lot of the time, then let's rehabilitate them while they're in there is the main point. And do so based on what actually works to do that.
[00:44:23] Crystal Fincher: It's really the investment in the people who are there, and we're - I think up against a lot of societal attitudes and resistance where it just feels wrong to a number of people to be providing services and shifting that investment to things that are seemingly helpful for the inmate, because everything about how we've been conditioned to understand our prison system has been - the punishment is kind of the key, and they'll make rational decisions afterwards to avoid prison based on how bad the punishment is. When it comes to community supervision, things like probation, what are the differences there? If there are better outcomes from that, what accounts for the better outcomes when it comes to probation versus incarceration?
[00:45:23] Damon Petrich: I wouldn't say the outcomes are better - they're just pretty much the same as they would be if they're sentenced to prison. So, probation costs less and then it also enables the people to be out in the community doing community things, like being with their friends and families and all that. I mean, you can't quantify, based on a recidivism percentage, what their family members and friends and employers are getting out of it. So that's something we can't really look at - or I guess you could, but something we don't often do - but so there's intangible things that you would get by keeping people in the community. Plus it doesn't lead to all that other stuff I talked about where people become cynical of the legal system and it leads to this cycle of whatever.
[00:46:11] Crystal Fincher: Yeah, and so if we're were doing this programming in prison and helping people, I think your research shows it's extremely important to do both the structural, Hey, you need a place to live, you need to be able to pay your rent and your bills - so having a job, having housing, having healthcare, getting those very basic needs met is critical. But also addressing a number of the mental or behavioral health issues that are common among the incarcerated population - and dealing with that is as important. And basically those two things both need to happen hand-in-hand. How do we do a better job of that in our current system?
[00:46:57] Damon Petrich: Well, first of all, I'd like to say that you're right there - I think maybe when I was talking earlier about employment, it might sound like giving people jobs is just a waste of time, but that's not the case. It needs - the two things need to be paired - you need to deal with the cognitive and behavioral problems in addition to giving them jobs and housing support and all that. In terms of how you actually go about doing that, there are examples in the literature of programs that do this, so there's examples out there.
I think if you're a state or local or even federal correctional department and you're interested in doing this - implementing something that's evidence-based - or if you're just a concerned citizen that wants to rally your local officials to do that - go and talk to researchers like me, or people at universities that have criminology departments or criminal justice departments, because this knowledge is out there. It's widely available. You just have to go and seek it out. So at my university, for example, we have the University of Cincinnati Corrections Institute and under the guidance of Ed Latessa, he was - now passed - but he was, over the last 30 years, responsible for disseminating a lot of this evidence-based practices to some of the state and local criminal justice agencies. And they helped with implementation and evaluation in a lot of these places, so the help is out there. You just have to look for it a little bit.
[00:48:38] Crystal Fincher: And another question I had - your analysis seemed to suggest that when we're talking about low-risk, medium, and high-risk offenders - or people who have done relatively minor crimes versus those who have done more serious crimes - that these interventions are particularly effective the more serious the offense or crime has been. And that perhaps even sometimes treating someone who is a really low-risk as if they're a high-risk, can worsen the outcomes for that person. Is that the case?
[00:49:21] Damon Petrich: Yeah, that tends to be a finding in research - we're not exactly sure why, but providing a lot of really intensive services to people deemed to be low-risk can actually be harmful rather than helpful. We don't know based on research why, but there's a lot of pretty good hypotheses about why. So a low-risk offender is going to be somebody who's a first-timer who's committed some not-that-serious crime. So they probably have a job, they probably have pretty strong connections with their family and all that. So if you're taking them and you're putting them in a program where you have to be there 40 hours a week, they're probably going to get fired from their job, it's going to be harder to stay in contact with friends and families that are sort of tying you into a non-criminal life. And then you're probably going to be associating with all kinds of people who are high-risk, and maybe they're going to draw you towards, oh yeah, I could earn four grand going out tonight and stealing some laptops. There's a lot of reasons why just taking low-risk people and putting them in these programs is going to be harmful rather than helpful.
[00:50:31] Crystal Fincher: And so with that in mind, and you talk about, Hey, if we're trying to influence local electeds - one of the interesting things about having a podcast and radio show that caters to extremely politically and civically inclined people is that we actually do have a number of policymakers and politicians who listen, and people who are enacting and in control of this policy. If you were to talk to them and give them advice about how to move forward, especially in the current environment that we find ourselves in, where over the past few years has been increasing awareness of some of the defecits of our system and pushes to change those. And also, as we have seen more recently, a real strong pushback from a lot of people who are invested in our current system saying, Hey, let's not change things too much. Maybe we need to jail more and for longer. And maybe we're just not doing enough incarceration, and that's the answer. In that kind of political environment, what would you tell people who are in charge of this policy, who may be facing pressure to keep going forward with the status quo, about how they should evaluate how they should move forward and the kinds of things that they should do?
[00:52:07] Damon Petrich: I know a lot of these politicians get lobbied by correctional officer groups or whatever, and that's whatever, but ultimately you get voted in by voters. So, I'm not an expert on public opinion - I have other friends who are more into that kind of stuff, but I do know from talking with them and from reading that literature, that the public actually does support rehabilitation. So they have for a long time and it's shifted more towards being in support of rehabilitation over time. So right now, most Americans support providing rehabilitation programs to prisoners and offenders. So this is something that's going to please your constituency, people want this kind of thing. And it's not like you're going to be losing all kinds of jobs by getting rid of prison - there's going to be a need for skilled people who can provide these programs and probation officers and all these sorts of things. So it's not a net loss when you're getting rid of prisons. There's a lot of reasons to sentence people to community supervision and things like that - provide rehabilitation. There's public support for it, there's jobs involved, there's cost savings - big time, obviously - it's way cheaper to keep somebody out of prison than it is to keep them in prison. So there's a lot of different reasons why you would want to do that as a politician.
[00:53:43] Crystal Fincher: I think that makes sense. Certainly it's a lot cheaper to keep someone out of prison versus in prison. I mean, we talked about the annual costs - in the state of Washington over $40,000, King County over $70,000 - comparing that to how much we invest in a student of $11,500 a year. If we focus more on investing in people, both inside and outside the system, it seems like we set ourselves up for a safer community, fewer people being victimized, and more people leading thriving, productive, tax-paying lives. And we're all happier than we are right now, I would think, I would hope - it seems like the research points in that direction. So I certainly appreciate you taking the time to speak with us about this. Is there anything else that you want to leave with us, in thinking about this study and your research?
[00:54:55] Damon Petrich: I think we covered it pretty well. Just to circle back to something you just said - I know this might put me out of a job since I focus on what happens when people's lives go awry, but you really are better off to invest in early prevention programs and giving people a good start on life than trying to correct the program or the problem afterwards. So yeah - politicians spend some money on prevention programs. I know the good effects of that are a long way out, but they're actually good on a societal level. So I guess I would add that, even though it's not good for criminologists, maybe, to put themselves out of a job like that.
[00:55:40] Crystal Fincher: Well, much appreciated, and thank you so much for having this conversation with us today.
[00:55:45] Damon Petrich: Yeah, thank you very much for having me on. I'm glad that there are people out there interested in this stuff, so thanks again.
[00:55:51] Crystal Fincher: I thank you all for listening to Hacks & Wonks on KVRU 105.7 FM. The producer of Hacks & Wonks is Lisl Stadler with assistance from Shannon Cheng. You can find me on Twitter @finchfrii, spelled F-I-N-C-H-F-R-I-I. Now you can follow Hacks & Wonks on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever else you get your podcasts - just type "Hacks and Wonks" into the search bar. Be sure to subscribe to get our Friday almost-live shows and our midweek show delivered to your podcast feed. If you like us, leave a review wherever you listen to Hacks & Wonks. You can also get a full transcript of this episode and links to the resources referenced in the show at officialhacksandwonks.com and in the episode notes.
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