Blog of Rights

Breaking the Addiction to Incarceration: Weekly Highlights

By Alex Stamm, ACLU Center for Justice at 3:56pm

Today, the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world. With over 2.3 million men and women living behind bars, our imprisonment rate is the highest it's ever been in U.S. history. And yet, our criminal justice system has failed on every count: public safety, fairness and cost-effectiveness. Across the country, the criminal justice reform conversation is heating up. Each week, we feature some of the most exciting and relevant news in overincarceration discourse that we've spotted from the previous week. Check back weekly for our top picks.

Environment Matters

The Atlantic published a fascinating piece this week about a radical change in a school environment that led to a counterintuitive change. You really should read the entire article, but I’ll summarize the key points here.

Last year, American Paradigm Schools (APS) took over John Paul Jones Middle School in Philadelphia. Before APS arrived, the school was plagued with violence, which it addressed by placing police around and in the school, searching students with metal detectors, and barring the windows. Students nicknamed their school the “Jones Jail.”

APS took a radically different approach. The got rid of the metal detectors and took down the window bars. They replaced the security guards with “engagement coaches,” former veterans whose job is to be supportive and to “help mediate disputes rather than dole out punishment.” They implemented the Alternatives to Violence Program, “a noncoercive, nonviolent conflict resolution regimen originally used in prison settings that was later adapted to violent schools.”

Some predicted chaos. Instead, the opposite happened. In a single school year, serious incidents (drug sales, weapons, assaults, rapes) dropped by 90 percent, from 138 to 15. Most of the students reported feeling safe at school and optimistic about college. Same students, same neighborhood. Better environment, better results.

Other Interesting Items from the Past Week

  • A recent study from a pair of economists found that incarcerating youth increases the chances that they will drop out of school, which in turn increases the risk that they will be incarcerated as adults. Read coverage in the Chicago Tribune and the full study.
  • Cincinnati is planning to expand its use of GPS monitoring instead of jailing people awaiting trial. “’If you’re sitting in jail, you can’t go to work, you can’t get medical treatment,’ said Charmaine McGuffey of the sheriff’s office, who is in charge of the jail. ‘I think it’s absolutely the wave of the future.’” The devices cost $9.50 a day per monitor, far lower than the $55 daily cost of jail.
  • The House subcommittee that funds the U.S. Department of Justice issued a plan to commission a task force that will "develop practical, data-driven policy options to increase public safety, improve offender accountability, reduce recidivism, and control growth of spending on corrections." The plan would have the group study recent state-level successes to reduce prison populations.

Want to know how addicted your state is to incarceration? Check out our new map for updates on recent activity in state legislatures to reduce prison populations, with contextual information about each state.

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