Jan 24, 2023
On this Hacks & Wonksmidweek show, Crystal has a robust conversation with Damon Petrichabout his research at the School of Criminal Justice at theUniversity 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 studieslooking at the effect of incarceration on reoffending. The review’sfinding that the oft-used policy of imprisonment does not reducethe likelihood of recidivism sparks a discussion about how theUnited States ended up as the world leader in mass incarcerationand the disconnect between conventional assumptions about whatprisons provide versus reality. Noting that the carceral systemdoes a poor job of rehabilitation - while eating up budgets acrossthe country and exacting significant societal costs - Damon andCrystal talk about how to design and evaluate programs that do workto deliver greater public safety for everyone.
As always, a full text transcript of the show isavailable below and at officialhacksandwonks.com.
Find the host, Crystal, on Twitter at @finchfrii and reach Damon formore information about his research at firstname.lastname@example.org
“CustodialSanctions and Reoffending: A Meta-Analytic Review” by Damon M.Petrich, Travis C. Pratt, Cheryl Lero Jonson, and Francis T. Cullenfor Crime and Justice
“MassIncarceration: The Whole Pie 2022” by Wendy Sawyer and PeterWagner from the Prison Policy Initiative
“Risk-need-responsivitymodel for offender assessment and rehabilitation” by JamesBonta and D. A. Andrews for Public Safety Canada
“Let’sTake a Hard Look at Who Is in Jail and Why We Put Them There”by Alea Carr for the ACLU-WA blog
Book - “GreatAmerican City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect” byRobert J. Sampson
Byrne Criminal Justice Innovation Program - “PoliceLegitimacy and Legal Cynicism: Why They Matter and How to Measurein Your Community”
“PollsShow People Favor Rehabilitation over Incarceration” by MattClarke for Prison Legal News
[00:00:00] Crystal Fincher: Welcome toHacks & Wonks. I'm Crystal Fincher, and I'm a politicalconsultant and your host. On this show, we talk with policy wonksand political hacks to gather insight into local politics andpolicy in Washington state through the lens of those doing the workwith behind-the-scenes perspectives on what's happening, why it'shappening, and what you can do about it. Full transcripts andresources referenced in the show are always available atofficialhacksandwonks.com and in our episode notes.
Well, I am excited to welcome Damon Petrich, who's adoctoral associate in the School of Criminal Justice at Universityof Cincinnati and incoming assistant professor at Loyola UniversityChicago. He was the lead author of a recent article, "CustodialSanctions and Reoffending: A Meta-Analytic Review," along withTravis Pratt, Cheryl Lero Johnson, Francis T. Cullen. Damon'sresearch focuses on the effectiveness of corrections andrehabilitation programs, desistance from crime, and the impact ofcommunity violence on youth development. Thank you so much forjoining us, Damon.
[00:01:13] Damon Petrich: Thank youvery much for having me on, Crystal. I'm excited to talk a littlebit about my work and the implications of that and all that, sothanks again.
[00:01:20] Crystal Fincher: I'm veryexcited to talk about this and it's extremely timely - has been fora while. We have conversations almost every day in the publicsphere having to do with public safety - this is such a majorcomponent 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 ofcustodial sanctions and incarceration, and alternatives to that -to have a conversation that kind of orients us more towards publicsafety. Sometimes we're so concerned with metrics around police andhow many they are, and what the length of a sentence should be. Andsometimes we focus on things that take us off of the overall goalof keeping us all safer and reducing the likelihood that each of usare victimized and to hopefully prevent people from becomingvictims of crime. And just to have accurate conversations about howwe invest our public resources - what we're actually getting fromthem, and then how to evaluate as we go along - what we should betracking and measuring and incentivizing. As so many people talkabout taking data-driven approaches and create all these dashboards- that we're really doing it from an informed perspective. So justto start out - what actually were you studying and what were youseeking to find out?
[00:02:47] Damon Petrich: Yeah, so themain purpose of our meta-analysis, which I can explain exactly whatthat is later on if you have questions, but the main purpose was tounderstand what happens when you take one group of offenders andyou sentence them to something custodial like prison or jail, andthen you sentence another group of similar offenders to somethingnon-custodial like probation. How do those two groups differ interms of whether they reoffend? So does prison actually deterrecidivism, or does it make people more likely to commit crimeafterwards? So that's sort of what we were looking at and so weconsidered all of the available research on that, in thisreview.
[00:03:29] Crystal Fincher: Got it. Soright now we have gone down the path of mass incarceration - thatis the default punishment that we, as society, have looked to forcrime. Hey - sentence them and many times it's, Hey, they're goingto jail. Sometimes they get out of jail and they have supervisionthat continues, but jail is really focused, where we focus a lot ofour effort and where we put people and hope that that'll straightenthem out and they come out and everything is fine. How did we gethere and where are we in terms of how we're approachingincarceration in our society, in our country?
[00:04:11] Damon Petrich: Yeah, sothere is a lot of public uproar around a lot of issues, like raceissues, 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, butpoliticians decided that we should tackle the crime problem by A)incarcerating more people, and then B) once they get there, keepthem there for longer. So we enacted things like mandatory minimumsentences, where the judge really has no discretion over whathappens - the person gets automatically a sentence of incarcerationif they've committed a certain type of crime. You had habitualoffender laws where if you're - like California's three strikespolicy - 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 hadthe "650 Lifer Law," where if you get caught with 650 grams ofheroin or cocaine, you're automatically going to prison for life.And then we got rid of parole and stuff like that in a lot ofstates.
So all these things lead to more people going to jailand then for longer, and those laws came to be in the '70s and'80s. And over that time, our incarceration rate ballooned up byabout 700%, so by the early 2000s, we were at over 2 million peopleincarcerated and another 7-8 million people on probation or parole.So it's a pretty big expansion - the United States has 5% of theworld's population and a quarter, or 25%, of the prisoners, so it'sa little ridiculous. The crime rate here isn't nearly as high, ornearly high enough to justify that huge disparity. So yeah, it's awhole confluence of factors led us to be the world leader inincarceration.
[00:06:14] Crystal Fincher: And whatattitudes or what justifications are the people who have the powerto enact these policies and continue these policies - how are theyjustifying them?
[00:06:25] Damon Petrich: So there's afew reasons why you might want to incarcerate somebody. One is justbecause you want to punish them or get revenge on them, so that'smore of a moral reason. But the main focus of politicians weretwofold - one was incapacitation, so that one means that becauseyou're keeping somebody locked up in a cage, obviously they can'tbe out in the community committing crimes. So the thought is thatyou're going to reduce crime that way. The research on that is alittle squishy even now, and I can talk a little bit more aboutthat later if you want. But the other reason, and the one that wefocused on in our review, was that prison deters people from goingback to crime after they get out. So the idea there is that prisonsucks - you go in there, you're cut off from your job, from yourfamily, from your friends, or from just having hobbies or things todo. And you're not going to want to go back, so when you get out ofprison - you think real hard, and you think how much prison sucks,and you decide not to go back to crime. That's the thinking behindthat deterrence hypothesis anyway.
So those two - incapacitation and deterrence - were themain drivers of those increase in laws and stuff during the '70s,'80s, and '90s, but there really wasn't any evidence for either ofthem - in the '70s and '80s in particular. So most of the researchevaluating whether prison actually does deter recidivism has poppedup over the last 25 years or so.
[00:08:05] Crystal Fincher: And as youtook a look at it - all of the studies that have popped up over thepast 25 years had varying degrees of rigor and scientific validity.But as that body of research grew, people began to get a betteridea of whether incarceration actually does reduce someone'slikelihood of reoffending. How big was that body of work, in termsof studies, and what were you able to look at?
[00:08:40] Damon Petrich: So in ourparticular review, we looked at 116 studies, which is a prettysizable number. Most people - when you read through an article anda literature review might have 10 studies or something that theyjust narratively go through, but we looked at 116. And then withinthose 116 studies, there were 981 statistical models. So 901different comparisons - or 981 different comparisons - of whathappens to custodial versus non-custodial groups. So we looked at apretty big chunk of literature.
[00:09:20] Crystal Fincher: And inthat, in the reliance of - that's a really big number - and Ithink, people now are maybe more familiar, just from a layperson'sperspective, of just how big that number is. As we've seenthroughout this pandemic that we're in the middle of, studies comeout - people are looking at one study, and wow - study number twocomes out and we're feeling really good about it. And man, we getto 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 studyand analysis. What were you able to determine from that?
[00:10:05] Damon Petrich: So I shouldprobably explain upfront what a meta-analysis is and why it'suseful. So like you were just saying - like in the COVID pandemic,for example - one study will come out and it'll say, oh, Ivermectinreduces symptomatic COVID cases by X percent. And then the nextstudy will come out and say, Ivermectin makes people way worse. Soany individual study can be kind of misleading.
A good analogy for what a meta-analysis does would beto look at baseball, for example. So let's say you're interested insome rookie player that's just come out, he's just joined MajorLeague Baseball and you go to his - you want to know how good thisplayer actually is? You've never seen him play, you've only heardrumors. So you go out to his first game, he gets up to bat fourtimes and he gets no hits. So you walk away from that gamethinking, wow, this player is terrible, the team wasted all theirmoney recruiting and paying this guy's salary. But that could havejust been an off game for many reasons - it's his debut game somaybe there's just first-game nerves, maybe the weather was bad,maybe he was having personal problems in his life, or he had alittle bit of an injury. So there's a number of reasons why lookingat his performance from that one game is not going to berepresentative of who he is as a player. Ideally, you'd want tolook at all the games over a season where he might go up to bat 250times. And over those 250 times, he gets 80 hits, which is a prettygood batting average - it's over .300. So with that amount of data,you could come to a more solid conclusion of whether he's actuallya good player or not.
And with that amount of data, you could also look atwhat we call moderating characteristics. So you could look at, forexample, whether he plays better when it's an away game or in ahome game, whether it's early or late season - you could look atall these sorts of things. So this is essentially what we're doingwith research as well, in a meta-analysis.
So if you look at studies on incarceration - one mightshow increases in recidivism after people go to prison, the nextmight show decreases, and the next might show that probationers andprisoners reoffend at about the same rates. So just like in thebaseball analogy, in a meta-analysis, we're looking at all of theavailable research. We're combining it together and determining A)what the sort of overall or average effect of incarceration is, andthen B) whether these moderating characteristics actually matter.So in other words, is the effect of incarceration pretty much thesame for males as it is for females, or for juveniles as adults, orwhen the research design is really good versus when it's not sogreat. So that's basically what we did in this meta-analysis isagain - looked at 116 studies and from those 981 statisticalestimates.
[00:13:13] Crystal Fincher: Veryhelpful. Totally makes sense with the baseball analogy, and Iespecially appreciate breaking down with all the statistical modelsand not just kind of thumbs up, thumbs down - the binary - iteither increases or reduces the likelihood of recidivism. But underwhat conditions are - might it be more likely, less likely thatsomeone does? What are some of those influencing effects on whathappens? And so you were just talking about the justification thatpeople used going into this, and now that we have data coming out -does it turn out that people go into prison or are incarcerated injail, they think - wow, this is horrible. Some in society are likethe more uncomfortable we make it in jail, the better we want tomake 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 justscared straight for the rest of their lives. Does it actually turnout to be that way? Do they take a rational look at - this was myexperience, I don't want to go back again, therefore I will not doany of the things that I did going in.
[00:14:28] Damon Petrich: I would notsay that's the conclusion - no. So again, based on the 116 studiesthat we looked at, which is again a lot, people who are sentencedto incarceration - so jail, prison - they commit crime, theyreoffend at about the same rates as if you'd sentence those samepeople to probation. So in other words, they're not being deterredby being sent to prison. These effects are the same for both malesand females. So in other words, prison doesn't reduce reoffendingfor one group versus the other. It's the same whether we look atadults versus juveniles, it's the same regardless of what type ofrecidivism we're interested in - rearrests or convictions. It'spretty much the same across the board. There's some slightvariations in research designs, but even within those, prisoneither has no effect or it slightly increases recidivism. We don'tfind any conditions under which prison is reducing reoffending ordeterring these people from going back to those lives.
[00:15:35] Crystal Fincher: So from asocietal perspective, a lot of people kind of make the assumptionthat, Hey, we arrest and we incarcerate someone - whew, our streetsare safer. They get out, and now they can choose to reintegratethemselves into society hopefully - they do and we're all saferbecause of it. But it looks like impressions that some people mayhave that, Hey, we're letting someone off easy. And suggestions -there's so much media coverage around this - and suggestions thatbecause we're letting people off easy, that we're making it easierfor them to reoffend, or they don't feel sufficiently punishedenough and so that becomes an incentive to reoffend. Does that seemlike 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 offenderswhether they'd prefer going to prison or probation. And a lot ofthem will say, oh, I'd rather do a year in prison than spend two orthree years on probation. So it's not like they view probation asjust being super easy. And they're not saying this because theyreceived time off their sentence for being in the study or anythinglike that. Probation's not easy either - and you have to also thinkthat while these people are on probation, they're able to stay inclose touch with their family, they're able to maintain connectionswith work or find work, they're able to participate in thecommunity, they can pay taxes - that I know a lot of people who arepro-prison love.
So there's all sorts of reasons why - beyond just themreoffending at the same rates as if they'd gone to prison - there'sa lot of reasons why we might want to keep these people in thecommunity. And it's not like we're saying, let everybody out ofprison - so the nature of this research - you want to compareapples to apples. So in this research, comparing prisoners toprobationers - these have to be people who are getting - they couldeither legitimately get a sentence of jail or probation, or prisonor probation. So these are going to be first-time offenders, peoplewho are relatively low-level - they've committed low-level crimesand all that. So we're not saying - there's not going to be asituation where a murderer just gets probation - that sort ofthing. So I know that might be a concern of some people - theythink that's a natural argument of this analysis, but it's reallynot.
[00:18:24] Crystal Fincher: Well, andto your point, we're really talking - if we're looking at all ofthe crime that gets people sentenced to prison time, a very smallpercentage of that is murder. A very small percentage of it is onthat kind of scale - you can wind up in jail or prison for a widevariety of offenses - many of them, people perceive as relativelyminor or that people might be surprised can land you in prison. Orif someone has committed a number of minor offenses, that can stackup - to your point in other situations - and increase the length ofdetention or the severity of the consequences. As we're lookingthrough this and the conversation of, okay, so, we sentence them,we let them out - it's not looking like there's a differencebetween jail or community supervisions, things like probation -what is it about jail that is harmful or that is not helpful? Whatis it about the structure of our current system that doesn'timprove recidivism outcomes for people?
[00:19:42] Damon Petrich: Probably themain one is the rehabilitation is not the greatest. So just as anexample, substance abuse is a very strong predictor whether peopleare going to reoffend, unsurprisingly. About 50% of prisoners atthe state and federal level in The States meet the DSM [Diagnosticand Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders] criteria for having asubstance use abuse disorder - so they meet the clinical criteriafor substance abuse disorder. So half of them, and then more thanthat just use substances, but they don't meet the criteria for adisorder. But of that 50% who has a substance abuse disorder, onlyabout 20% of those actually receives treatment for it while they'reincarcerated. So, you're not dealing with a root cause ofreoffending while they're in prison - so you're not deterring them,but you're also not rehabilitating them - so you're really notdoing anything.
And then in the rare cases where these people areprovided with rehabilitation or reentry programming, it's often notbased on any sort of evidence-based model of how you actuallychange people. So there's a lot of psychological and criminologytheory and research on how you actually elicit behavioral change,and these programs really aren't in line with any of that. And Icould give examples if you wanted, but -
[00:21:17] Crystal Fincher: Sure. Ithink that's helpful, 'cause I think a lot of people do assume, andsometimes it's been controversial - wow, look at how much they'recoddling these prisoners - they have these educational programs,and they get all this drug treatment for free, and if they don'tcome out fixed then it's their own fault because they have accessto all of these treatment resources in prison. Is that thecase?
[00:21:43] Damon Petrich: No, Iwouldn't say so - first of all, they don't have access, a lot ofthem, to any programs. And then, like I said, the programs thatthey do get really aren't that effective. So the big one thateverybody loves to argue for is providing former inmates with jobs.If you look at any federal funding for program development, likethe Second Chance Act or the First Step Act - I think that was oneunder Trump - and then under Bush, there was a Serious [and]Violent Offenders Reentry Initiative - pretty much all of thesefederal bills will be heavily focused on just providing offenderswith jobs. And almost all of the evaluations of these programs showthat they don't reduce reoffending.
And it's not really that hard - again, if you go backto the literature on behavioral change and, criminology literature- it's not really that hard to understand why just providing a jobisn't going to reduce or lead somebody away from a life of crime. Alot of these people have spotty work histories where they've neverhad a job at all, they believe and know that it's easier to gainmoney by doing illicit work than it is legal work, they have thingslike low self-control so they're very impulsive, they don't knowhow to take criticism or being told what to do by a boss. They livein neighborhoods with very poor opportunities for good jobs andeducation, and maybe there's a mindset around there that illegalwork or whatever is just a better way to go - that's sort ofingrained. So there's a lot of different reasons why just handingsomebody a job isn't going to lead them away from crime, 'causethey have all these other things that need to be dealt withfirst.
So ideally, a rehabilitation program that'scomprehensive would deal with all of those other background factorsand then provide them with a job. Because if you make them lessimpulsive, better able to resist the influence of their antisocialfriends, and get this thought out of their head that other peopleare being hostile towards them when they're really not - all thesesorts of cognitive and behavioral biases that they have - if youdeal with all of those things and then you give them a job, they'remore likely to actually latch onto that job as something worthwhiledoing. And then they're going to go on to get out of a life ofcrime. But if you just give them a job and you haven't dealt withany of those issues, you can't really expect that to work. And thatis the model that we currently do - is something that we don'treally 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 ofpeople actually know that, Hey, giving someone a job isn'tsufficient - which is why I think it's so important to talk aboutstudies like this, because some of what has become conventionalwisdom, really is not accurate or reflects what has been studiedand discovered. And I guess in that vein, what are the factors -you just talked about a few - but what does increase someone'slikelihood of reoffending or recidivism, and what reduces it?
[00:25:08] Damon Petrich: So those areprobably two ends of the same, or two sides of the same coin, butthis is pretty well known in criminology - a model called therisk-need-responsivity [RNR] model was developed by a couple offellow Canadians, named James Bonta and Don Andrews, along withsome of their colleagues in the '80s and '90s. And they, throughagain, other meta-analyses just like we did, found certaincategories of characteristics of people who are more likely toreoffend. So you have things like having antisocial peers - so thatone's pretty obvious - if you have a bunch of friends that areinvolved in crime, it's going to be pretty hard for you to get outof that life because you're surrounded by those people. Same withfamily members. If you have what are called criminal thinkingpatterns - so again, you might have what's called a hostileattribution bias, things like that, where somebody says something alittle bit negative to you and you take that as a huge insult andyou retaliate with anger and aggression - things like that. Orbeing impulsive - so you're again quick to anger, you're swayed bysmall little enticements in the environment and that sort of thing- so you're easily swayed one way or the other. Things like thatare strong predictors of reoffending. Substance abuse - it's what Imentioned earlier. If you don't really have any sort of proactiveleisure activities, like hobbies and stuff like that. So there's abunch of well-known things that we know are strongly associatedwith recidivism, and a rehabilitation program should ideally dealwith them.
Now this model that Andrews and Bonta and all theseother people came up with - this RNR risk-need-responsivity model -the risk part says that we should give people a risk assessmentwhen they're entering prison or leaving prison and determine whatlevel of risk are they from reoffending. And we assess thesedifferent criteria, like criminal thinking patterns and antisocialfriends and substance abuse. So we determine what those factors areand then we design them a treatment program that actually dealswith those factors at the individual level. So we're not justgiving a blanket rehabilitation program to everybody, and you'reproviding the most amount of care to the people who most need it orwho are the most likely to re-offend.
And then once we've done all that, we need to make surethat we're addressing these problems in some sort of a format thatwe know actually works. The most well-known one, but not as oftenused, the most well-known within the sort of psychologist andcriminological literature is cognitive behavioral therapy [CBT]. Sothis is pretty popular for dealing with depression and all sorts ofeating disorders and substance abuse problems in non-offenderpopulations. Well, those programs also work in offender populationsand they work pretty well. So the research shows - againmeta-analyses - that when you deal with all these three factors -risk, need, and responsivity - you can reduce reoffending rates byabout 26%. So it's a pretty sizeable amount - it's much greaterthan you're getting by just sentencing people to prison withoutdoing anything.
[00:28:42] Crystal Fincher:Absolutely, and I think you cover in your paper - those things areabsolutely true. And you just talked about several administrations'attempts to implement programming and resources to try and helppeople get jobs, potentially - hey, there's even a CBT treatment,but if that treatment has twice as many people as are recommendedbeing in a session and occurs over half the time that it's supposedto, you really are sabotaging the entire process or really settingit up for failure. And it just seems to be an expensive exercisethat we aren't really getting anything out of. Does that seem to beconsistent with how you've seen the attempts at introducing thisprogramming within prisons and jails?
[00:29:40] Damon Petrich: Yeah, forsure - this is a pretty common finding too - so it's not just aboutpreaching that you're going to do these things. You actually haveto implement them well. So just like you said, there's a number ofstudies that show this - so you've designed some really greatprogram that deals with all of these risk factors that lead peopleback into reoffending, you give it to them in a cognitivebehavioral setting. So all seems good on paper, but in practice,like you said - one of the famous studies there - can't rememberthe names of the authors offhand right now - but one of the famousstudies there showed that they're providing it to people in groupsof 30, as opposed to 15, and they're delivering it in a reallyshort amount of time. And they're not maybe giving it to thehighest-risk people - so they're just mixing random people in thereat varying levels of risk. So when you do all these sorts of things- you implement the program poorly - you can't really expect it towork.
And this is often the case - is the government payspeople to come up with these great programs, and then not enoughfunding is provided to actually make sure that they're implementedand evaluated well. So the amount of funding that actually goesinto that - developing the programs to begin with - is small, butwhen you do do that, you're not making sure that you're actuallyimplementing things well. So it's just sort of shooting yourself inthe foot, and probably making people come to the conclusion thatthese things don't work - when they do work, if you just implementthem well.
[00:31:17] Crystal Fincher: Yeah, andthere's also a lot of rhetoric - and you discuss this - there's alot of rhetoric coming from the government, even coming fromleadership within the Bureau of Prisons or leadership in ourcarceral system, saying we do want to rehabilitate people. We aretrying to implement programming that does this. You see - we havethese educational opportunities and we are doing evaluations ofpeople. And it may be happening while they're understaffed or otherchallenges, but one of the biggest, I guess, red flags is that noneof the evaluation of their programs and none of the incentives thatarise are in any way tied to what is the actual result of whathappens. Are you actually succeeding on reducing someone'slikelihood for reoffense? It does not seem like any compensation istied to that, any kind of evaluation of positions or regularreporting - to say, is this program having its intended effect? Andif not, what do we need to do to correct for that? Is that what youfound?
[00:32:33] Damon Petrich: I would saythat's probably a pretty fair assessment. A lot of the programsthat are implemented are never evaluated at all. And then the onesthat are - it's usually once - there's one evaluation of thoseprograms. And then, like you said, there doesn't really seem to bea lot of self-reflection - I don't know what other word you woulduse - but these programs don't really change on the basis of theseevaluations. So, it's kind of disheartening to hear about, Iguess.
[00:33:14] Crystal Fincher: It feelsvery disheartening to live in the middle of - and one of the bigthings about this is that this - we have these conversations and wetalk about these studies and we're saying, yeah, it actually -we're not doing anyone any favors right now when it comes toreducing recidivism. And having these conversations oftentimesdetached 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 jobof keeping them in - they reoffend, they go back to jail. And lotsof 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 forthis - just here, we're in the state of Washington, and right nowthe state spends about $112 per day, or over $40,000 annually, toincarcerate one individual - that's the cost per inmate. In KingCounty - the county that we're in - they spend $192 a day, or$70,000 annually, to incarcerate an individual. That is a hugeamount of the tax dollars that we spend - these come out of ourgeneral fund, meaning that these are dollars that every service,everything that is not a dedicated source of revenue, is competingfor. 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 otherthings. And my goodness, I would think that we want to get ourmoney's worth for that level of expenditure. And it really appearsthat if we're saying the goal of jail is to get people on thestraight and narrow path and becoming contributing members ofsociety and all of the implications of that, it doesn't seem likewe're getting our money's worth. And so, if those aren't the goalsand if we just want to punish people, it's not like we're punishingpeople for free. We're punishing people at the cost of $70,000 perday [year], and at the cost of all the other services andinfrastructure needs that we have.
So it really seems like we're punishing ourselves asmuch, or more, as others - particularly if we're bringing peopleback into society that are likely to reoffend in one way oranother. And so if our goal is to keep our community safe and thatis the North Star, it looks like we need to realign our processesand our expenditure of resources. I guess my question to you, afterall that, is - how should we be moving forward? What should we belooking to do? What is shown to work?
[00:36:24] Damon Petrich: Well, Iwould say - yeah, $70,000 a year as just a revenge cost per personseems like a lot. $80 billion in the country as a whole, for arevenge cost, seems like a pretty high price to pay, given we'renot reducing reoffending. You could make the argument that thesepeople 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'minterested 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. Sothat'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 incarceratingmore people leads to lower crime rates, because one influences theother. But for example, if you look at illegal drug markets - a lotof the homicides in the United States and other violent crime thatpeople are really concerned about, and it's plastered all over themedia is - homicides, gang-related stuff. So if you take key gangmembers out and you put them in prison, what ends up happening isthat there's competition in that market to take over that person'splace, either within the gang or other gangs coming in. So whatends up happening oftentimes is a spike in violence. So that's onereason why just incapacitating, particularly high-crimeindividuals, might not actually lead to lower crime rates overall.Again, you're lowering crime for that one person, but you might beincreasing crime on a more systemic level.
Beyond that, these things have broader societal andcommunity level impacts - incarcerating a lot of people. Again,research shows that when you're incarcerating a lot of people in aparticular community - so there's a bunch of really good work byRobert Sampson - he has a book that came out a few years ago calledGreat American City. And he looked at these individualneighborhoods in Chicago over time, and what he finds is that incommunities where there's a higher number of people incarcerated ina particular community, this ends up increasing what's called"legal cynicism." And this is done in some other work as well withDavid Kirk and Andrew Papachristos - but they show that thisincreases legal cynicism, which means people are skeptical ofpolice helping them out, the police doing a good job. And what endsup happening after that - when people are more cynical of the legalsystem, they're less likely to report crimes to the police, they'reless likely to cooperate with the police. So what ends uphappening? You incarcerate more people and people in that communityend up being less willing to cooperate with law enforcement. Andthis leads to sort of an endless cycle where things sort of get outof hand. So there's all these unintended and nonfinancialconsequences of incarcerating a lot of people that couldpotentially end up leading to more crime.
[00:40:03] Crystal Fincher: Well, and- speaking as a Black woman - obviously, looking at the impacts ofmass incarceration in the Black community and in neighborhoodsaround the country - where it is almost like the community isresponding to the actual outcome and that, Hey, this actually isn'tmaking my community any better. I'm experiencing traumatic impactsfrom this - whether it's my relative went to prison or a solebreadwinner in the family and now we're thrown into poverty, or I'min a situation where I don't have a parent who used to be there -who now is no longer there. Or causing instability and impactingthe 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 cycleof traumatic and undesirable events - and I don't want toparticipate in a system that is doing that.
With that, as we look forward, and I think this is alsorelated to conversations about just fundamental trust in ourcriminal legal system and relations with police and throughout thesystem. It's - if we think about how to turn that around - to me,seems related to thinking about the question of how do we getbetter outcomes for everyone? 'Cause it seems like right now wherewe're investing a lot in poor outcomes for people who were already,usually, in pretty poor spots leading to themselves beingincarcerated, coming out and not necessarily improving, definitelynot improving. And if anything, a chance that it gets a little bitworse. How do we change that entire outcome? And I know you'relooking specifically in the incarceration space, but what shouldbe, what could be done differently? Or do we just need afundamental restructuring of the way we do this?
[00:42:17] Damon Petrich: I don't knowabout a fundamental restructuring - I don't, I'm not great at thathigh-level thinking stuff, but what I do know is that - we'reprobably going to continue to incarcerate people. That's somethingthat's done in every country and people seem to love here. So if weactually want to use prison for public safety - because 95% ofinmates eventually get out - if we actually want to use it forpublic safety, then let's actually try wholeheartedly torehabilitate them while they're in there. And again, there's a lotof theory and evidence-based principles on how we can do this, likethe risk-need-responsivity model that I talked about earlier,cognitive behavioral therapy more broadly. If you use these typesof things and continue to work on them and develop them over time,then yeah - prison might actually be helpful if people are goingthere and getting the help that they need. But that's not what'shappening 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 someof this stuff is - if people are actually getting resources andstuff when they're in prison, and then when once they'rereintegrating, they're not only going to reoffend less, but maybethey're going to contribute to their community more. They're goingto 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 theircommunities and their family and friends. And like I said earlier,if you have the option to sentence them to somethingcommunity-based instead, I think that's the better route to go. Butif you are going to send people to prison, which I think we'regoing to continue to do a lot of the time, then let's rehabilitatethem while they're in there is the main point. And do so based onwhat actually works to do that.
[00:44:23] Crystal Fincher: It'sreally the investment in the people who are there, and we're - Ithink up against a lot of societal attitudes and resistance whereit just feels wrong to a number of people to be providing servicesand shifting that investment to things that are seemingly helpfulfor the inmate, because everything about how we've been conditionedto understand our prison system has been - the punishment is kindof the key, and they'll make rational decisions afterwards to avoidprison based on how bad the punishment is. When it comes tocommunity supervision, things like probation, what are thedifferences there? If there are better outcomes from that, whataccounts for the better outcomes when it comes to probation versusincarceration?
[00:45:23] Damon Petrich: I wouldn'tsay the outcomes are better - they're just pretty much the same asthey would be if they're sentenced to prison. So, probation costsless and then it also enables the people to be out in the communitydoing community things, like being with their friends and familiesand all that. I mean, you can't quantify, based on a recidivismpercentage, what their family members and friends and employers aregetting out of it. So that's something we can't really look at - orI guess you could, but something we don't often do - but so there'sintangible things that you would get by keeping people in thecommunity. Plus it doesn't lead to all that other stuff I talkedabout where people become cynical of the legal system and it leadsto this cycle of whatever.
[00:46:11] Crystal Fincher: Yeah, andso if we're were doing this programming in prison and helpingpeople, I think your research shows it's extremely important to doboth the structural, Hey, you need a place to live, you need to beable to pay your rent and your bills - so having a job, havinghousing, having healthcare, getting those very basic needs met iscritical. But also addressing a number of the mental or behavioralhealth issues that are common among the incarcerated population -and dealing with that is as important. And basically those twothings both need to happen hand-in-hand. How do we do a better jobof that in our current system?
[00:46:57] Damon Petrich: Well, firstof all, I'd like to say that you're right there - I think maybewhen I was talking earlier about employment, it might sound likegiving people jobs is just a waste of time, but that's not thecase. It needs - the two things need to be paired - you need todeal with the cognitive and behavioral problems in addition togiving them jobs and housing support and all that. In terms of howyou actually go about doing that, there are examples in theliterature of programs that do this, so there's examples outthere.
I think if you're a state or local or even federalcorrectional department and you're interested in doing this -implementing something that's evidence-based - or if you're just aconcerned citizen that wants to rally your local officials to dothat - go and talk to researchers like me, or people atuniversities that have criminology departments or criminal justicedepartments, because this knowledge is out there. It's widelyavailable. You just have to go and seek it out. So at myuniversity, for example, we have the University of CincinnatiCorrections Institute and under the guidance of Ed Latessa, he was- now passed - but he was, over the last 30 years, responsible fordisseminating a lot of this evidence-based practices to some of thestate and local criminal justice agencies. And they helped withimplementation and evaluation in a lot of these places, so the helpis out there. You just have to look for it a little bit.
[00:48:38] Crystal Fincher: Andanother question I had - your analysis seemed to suggest that whenwe're talking about low-risk, medium, and high-risk offenders - orpeople who have done relatively minor crimes versus those who havedone more serious crimes - that these interventions areparticularly effective the more serious the offense or crime hasbeen. And that perhaps even sometimes treating someone who is areally low-risk as if they're a high-risk, can worsen the outcomesfor that person. Is that the case?
[00:49:21] Damon Petrich: Yeah, thattends to be a finding in research - we're not exactly sure why, butproviding a lot of really intensive services to people deemed to below-risk can actually be harmful rather than helpful. We don't knowbased on research why, but there's a lot of pretty good hypothesesabout why. So a low-risk offender is going to be somebody who's afirst-timer who's committed some not-that-serious crime. So theyprobably have a job, they probably have pretty strong connectionswith their family and all that. So if you're taking them and you'reputting them in a program where you have to be there 40 hours aweek, they're probably going to get fired from their job, it'sgoing to be harder to stay in contact with friends and familiesthat are sort of tying you into a non-criminal life. And thenyou're probably going to be associating with all kinds of peoplewho are high-risk, and maybe they're going to draw you towards, ohyeah, I could earn four grand going out tonight and stealing somelaptops. There's a lot of reasons why just taking low-risk peopleand putting them in these programs is going to be harmful ratherthan helpful.
[00:50:31] Crystal Fincher: And sowith that in mind, and you talk about, Hey, if we're trying toinfluence local electeds - one of the interesting things abouthaving a podcast and radio show that caters to extremelypolitically and civically inclined people is that we actually dohave a number of policymakers and politicians who listen, andpeople who are enacting and in control of this policy. If you wereto 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 someof 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 ofpeople who are invested in our current system saying, Hey, let'snot change things too much. Maybe we need to jail more and forlonger. And maybe we're just not doing enough incarceration, andthat's the answer. In that kind of political environment, whatwould you tell people who are in charge of this policy, who may befacing pressure to keep going forward with the status quo, abouthow they should evaluate how they should move forward and the kindsof things that they should do?
[00:52:07] Damon Petrich: I know a lotof these politicians get lobbied by correctional officer groups orwhatever, and that's whatever, but ultimately you get voted in byvoters. So, I'm not an expert on public opinion - I have otherfriends who are more into that kind of stuff, but I do know fromtalking with them and from reading that literature, that the publicactually does support rehabilitation. So they have for a long timeand it's shifted more towards being in support of rehabilitationover time. So right now, most Americans support providingrehabilitation programs to prisoners and offenders. So this issomething that's going to please your constituency, people wantthis kind of thing. And it's not like you're going to be losing allkinds of jobs by getting rid of prison - there's going to be a needfor skilled people who can provide these programs and probationofficers and all these sorts of things. So it's not a net loss whenyou're getting rid of prisons. There's a lot of reasons to sentencepeople to community supervision and things like that - providerehabilitation. There's public support for it, there's jobsinvolved, there's cost savings - big time, obviously - it's waycheaper to keep somebody out of prison than it is to keep them inprison. So there's a lot of different reasons why you would want todo that as a politician.
[00:53:43] Crystal Fincher: I thinkthat makes sense. Certainly it's a lot cheaper to keep someone outof prison versus in prison. I mean, we talked about the annualcosts - 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, bothinside and outside the system, it seems like we set ourselves upfor a safer community, fewer people being victimized, and morepeople leading thriving, productive, tax-paying lives. And we'reall happier than we are right now, I would think, I would hope - itseems like the research points in that direction. So I certainlyappreciate you taking the time to speak with us about this. Isthere anything else that you want to leave with us, in thinkingabout this study and your research?
[00:54:55] Damon Petrich: I think wecovered it pretty well. Just to circle back to something you justsaid - I know this might put me out of a job since I focus on whathappens when people's lives go awry, but you really are better offto invest in early prevention programs and giving people a goodstart on life than trying to correct the program or the problemafterwards. So yeah - politicians spend some money on preventionprograms. I know the good effects of that are a long way out, butthey're actually good on a societal level. So I guess I would addthat, even though it's not good for criminologists, maybe, to putthemselves out of a job like that.
[00:55:40] Crystal Fincher: Well, muchappreciated, and thank you so much for having this conversationwith us today.
[00:55:45] Damon Petrich: Yeah, thankyou very much for having me on. I'm glad that there are people outthere interested in this stuff, so thanks again.
[00:55:51] Crystal Fincher: I thankyou all for listening to Hacks & Wonks on KVRU 105.7 FM. Theproducer of Hacks & Wonks is Lisl Stadler with assistance fromShannon Cheng. You can find me on Twitter @finchfrii, spelledF-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 "Hacksand Wonks" into the search bar. Be sure to subscribe to get ourFriday almost-live shows and our midweek show delivered to yourpodcast feed. If you like us, leave a review wherever you listen toHacks & Wonks. You can also get a full transcript of thisepisode and links to the resources referenced in the show atofficialhacksandwonks.com and in the episode notes.
Thanks for tuning in - we'll talk to you next time.