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Fewer Criminal Offenders Are Going to Prison Every Year. So Where Are They Going?

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Incarceration has become a bipartisan issue in the United States. People on both sides of the political and religious spectrum have conceded that our nation's prisons are overcrowded and that incarceration often does little to reduce recidivism and more to perpetuate the cycle of poverty and crime. Sentencing reform measures such as the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 have successfully reduced prison terms for low-level and nonviolent offenders, and yet crime rates have continued to drop.

Sentencing reform is keeping more people out of prison as well as keeping people in prison for shorter periods. So much so that 13 states closed prisons within the last year, but if fewer and fewer criminal offenders are going to prison, where are they going? What alternative is there to prison when it comes to punishing criminals?

Truthfully, states still aren't quite sure about the best alternative to incarceration. Various experiments are being conducted in states across the nation to find what works. 17 states are testing a program called "Justice Reinvestment." If successful, it will reduce prison costs and use the money it saves on alternative sentencing options for criminal offenders. Just what are some of the alternative sentencing options? The most popular include:

  1. Probation and parole – Statistically, there are two people on parole or probation for every individual in state and federal prison. Many believe that the criminal supervisory system can be seriously improved. With better funding and a shift in focus, caseworkers and technology can help keep parolees from ending up back in the system.
  2. Diversion for drug offenders – Diversion is an alternative to sentencing specifically for drug offenders that allows them to serve a majority of their sentence by participating in and completing drug counseling and rehabilitation programs.
  3. Re-entry programs for released inmates – Many inmates who are released from prison end up back in the system within three years after release. These individuals have a difficult time reintegrating into society, so re-entry programs focus on employment, housing and other opportunities to cut down on recidivism.
  4. More sophisticated police work – Many argue that the old police strategy of targeting stereotypically bad or poor neighborhoods has significantly contributed to prison overcrowding. Rather than focusing on bad neighborhoods, police should begin to target "hot spots" or areas known for drug deals, gang activity, etc.

Some argue that even these alternative forms of sentencing don't get to the root of the problem, which is that criminal activity thrives in poor areas with subpar education and job scarcity. We may not be able to fix the root of the problem right away, but research has shown that alternative sentencing can significantly reduce prison overcrowding, federal prison spending and most importantly, repeat criminal offenses.