As incarceration rates continue to rise, states are struggling to provide enough beds for those behind bars, and legislators increasingly are looking at other ways to free up space and save money. Several states have begun to focus on developing community-based programs that deal with low-level, nonviolent offenders without locking them up. We recently highlighted efforts states are making to find alternatives to building more prisons in this blog.
Rather than building new prisons, some states are looking at ways to control recidivism with programs that help newly released people find jobs, housing, drug treatment and mental health care.
Texas, for example, which was facing a projected increase in the prison population and a projected expenditure of more than a billion dollars to build several new prisons, has approved a plan that will make several changes to its correction policy. The prison population surge in Texas was not being driven by crime, which had risen only slightly, but by a breakdown in the parole and probation systems, which were unable to process and supervise the increasing number of released prisoners. The Texas Legislature projected that it could potentially avoid the need for any new prisons by expanding mental health and drug treatment services, along with other community-based programs.
Alternative sentencing is another option to control our ever-increasing prison population.
One of the most interesting prison alternative programs I’ve heard of recently is one launched in the United Kingdom in June, called “Planet Payback.” Although community service with an environmental twist is not new, the “Planet Payback” initiative is an option available to sentencing judges. Under sentencing guidelines that apply to this initiative, offenders can be sentenced by the courts to perform up to 300 hours of unpaid work for the benefit of the community. The U.K. National Probation Service works with voluntary community groups and local authorities involved with environmental activities to suggest areas where community payback projects can be implemented. According to U.K. Justice Minister Gerry Sutcliffe, environmental community service has been remarkably effective at reducing recidivism rates. He has been quoted as saying that although the predicted likelihood for those participating in such programs to commit more crimes had been 43.5 percent, the actual rate has been significantly lower at 37.9 percent.
As someone who has been alarmed by all the recent reports on how we are slowly destroying our planet, I find that environmental conservation that also serves as a form of restorative justice a fantastic idea. As Mr. Sutcliffe said when launching the “Planet Payback” initiative, "… we are here today, creating this drive for offenders to take that step and think of our planet before themselves.”