What are alternatives to incarceration?

This blog will cover alternatives to incarceration, a newer area of discovery for researchers and those close to the link between incarceration and substance abuse. It’s not that alternatives to incarceration (or ATI) is a new idea, exactly. ATI programs like community service, community supervision such as day reporting, and probation have been around for some time. And in fact, ATI is a concept even the White House notes as important.

It’s more that along with the movement to lower the overall prison and jail populations—given the U.S. has the highest rate of incarceration in the world—ATI has emerged as a viable way to keep criminal justice involved people out of lockup, though still held accountable for their actions, and involved in their communities. Importantly, ATIs help keep people linked with families, particularly with their children, and ATIs are typically less expensive than jail or prison stays.

Why should we keep people out of jail or prison? Institutions are overcrowded and people are serving long sentences for nonviolent drug crimes, something Attorney General Eric Holder is working to reduce. Women are specifically of interest for ATIs because of the important societal consideration that many women are the primary caregivers to their children. If they are removed from their kids, and the children end up in foster care, it’s natural that the separation would disrupt a child’s bonds with his or her family, Wellesley College senior research scientist Erika Kates notes in a recent Q&A interview. And that can have a negative impact on the community as a whole.

Now, programs like Drew House, for example, offer an alternative to jail or prison called supportive housing. The concept allows maternal criminal justice involved women and their minor children a place to live (they do pay rent), and they hold jobs. Rehabilitative and counseling services are also provided. The women’s felony charges are dismissed after successful completion of the program. A September 2011 evaluation by two nurses from Columbia University found Drew House to be “unique” and that by the end of their stays, participants could “begin the transition to independent living.” Further, the report said: “Children thrived in the Drew House environment. Women reported improved academic performance after entry into the house. … Children who moved into the home behind in their development caught up quickly.”

Approximately 200,000 women are in prison or jail nationwide. Often, they take the hit and go to jail in place of—or as a consequence of—their husbands’ and boyfriends’ drug-related offenses. About three-fourths of the women in prison or jail have children, which is a national trend. On top of that, female offenders are often victims of domestic abuse, sexual abuse and tend to have mental and substance abuse problems.

Once involved in the prison system, the future for a woman after serving time isn’t always so bright. According to Department of Corrections statistics, 54 percent of women released from jail in New York, for example, will return within a year. Recidivism rates, indeed, are quite high for men and women. According to an April report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the recidivism rate tracked in 30 states between 2005 and 2010 “was highest among males, blacks and young adults. By the end of the fifth year after release, more than three-quarters (78 percent) of males and two-thirds (68 percent) of females were arrested, a 10 percentage point difference that remained relatively stable during the entire 5-year follow-up period.”

One of the goals of ATI is to hopefully have a positive impact on recidivism rates, a subject this blog intends to analyze further.

You’ll notice this post links to several outside websites to find more information about ATI and other incarceration-related statistics. It’s important to note the level of data available on how the U.S. incarcerates and the programs that exist to ease or serve people after incarceration. It’s also important to acknowledge where data might be lacking—particularly with how alternatives to jailing people and keeping their family bonds intact can possibly help keep them out of jail or prison in the future.


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