The Hamilton Project and Rethinking Mass Incarceration in the U.S.

Roughly one quarter of the world’s prison population sits in U.S. institutions, but experts say mass imprisonment is no longer a sustainable option—especially in the juvenile justice system.

Early this month, the Brookings Institution released The Hamilton Project, a report detailing the social and economic consequences of U.S. mass imprisonment, as well as new alternatives to being “tough on crime.” Leading criminal justice researchers, law enforcement and criminal justice officials presented the report in Washington, D.C., which included policy reforms that would result in greater discretion for judges and parole boards, and a youth program aimed at changing the way teenagers “think about thinking.”

America began getting tough on crime in the 1980s with mandatory minimums and three-strikes laws, ensuring longer sentences and a higher likelihood of being sent to prison following an arrest. These policies led to a 30-year acceleration in the U.S. incarceration rate, according to the Hamilton Project papers, from 220 inmates per 100,000 U.S. residents in 1980 to 710 per 100,000 in 2012. Today, an African-American man without a high school diploma stands nearly a 70 percent chance of being sent to prison by his mid-thirties.

Children and mentors involved in the BAM - or Becoming a Man - initiative
Children and mentors involved in the BAM – or Becoming a Man – initiative/Youth Guidance

Meanwhile, the crime rate fell nearly 45 percent between 1990 and 2012, thanks to more police on the streets, more arrests resulting in jail time and the end of the crack epidemic, according to the Hamilton Project. But while it stands to reason that putting more and more people in jail would lead to an ever-lower crime rate, that isn’t necessarily the case.

“It turns out that at least at the current levels in the United States…that the marginal benefits in crime reduction are quite low, and there’s room for reducing incarceration without having appreciable impacts on crime, especially if the resources are reinvested in other ways,” said Steven Raphael, Professor of Public Policy at University of California, Berkeley.

“We know that contact with the justice system is bad for you,” said Laurence Steinberg, Professor of Psychology at Temple University. “It’s really, really bad for you. And the more kids we can keep out of the justice system, the better off we’re going to be.”

The study offered two solutions to the incarceration epidemic: first, reducing truth-in-sentencing laws’ severity, which require inmates to serve out their sentence by eliminating or restricting parole eligibility. Second, reworking or abandoning mandatory minimum sentences, which establish minimum sentence lengths for specific offenses. Both reforms would give power and discretion back to parole boards and judges. Without this discretion, there is more misconduct in jails and prisons, less participation in rehabilitative programming and a greater chance of relapsing into criminal behavior.

When it comes to the juvenile justice system, however, reforms are focused more on prevention than punishment, with trial programs already starting in Chicago.

Jens Ludwig, professor of Social Service Administration, Law and Public Policy at University of Chicago, recounted a shooting that occurred in 2012, in which a 17-year-old shot a 16-year-old on the South Side.

Panelists discussing the Hamilton Project and findings about mass incarceration at both the adult and juvenile levels
Panelists discussing the Hamilton Project and findings about mass incarceration at both the adult and juvenile levels

The shooter may have been responding in a way that would normally be helpful in his environment—standing up for his friends or proving that he’s not a pushover, Ludwig said. But this can “[lead] to tragedy when you have a .38 semi-automatic in your waistband.”

Ludwig’s team at the U of C Crime Lab studied a program led by two Chicago non-profits, Youth Guidance and World Sport Chicago, to figure out whether it was possible to prevent these kinds of tragedies by teaching kids how to override their automatic, adaptive responses using cognitive behavioral therapy. In one trial, run at a Chicago public school, a one-year program reduced violent crime arrests by 44 percent. Their team conducted two follow-up trials within CPS, using the same program paired with either a summer job or academic remediation, and one at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center with a similar program focusing on cognitive behavioral therapy—all “with encouraging results,” Ludwig said.

The Youth Guidance and World Sport Chicago program, Becoming A Man (BAM), teaches kids to learn how to recognize these adaptive responses and determine whether or not they’re the right response in a high-stakes situation. In the first Crime Lab trial, researchers also found that the program reduced weapons crime and vandalism by 36 percent, reduced the likelihood of attending school within the juvenile justice system by 53 percent and increased graduation rates by 10-23 percent.

Now, Ludwig and his team want to start scaling up, with a five-year, multi-city trial that pinpoints what aspect of the BAM program is essential to teens’ development. If the program continues to prove successful, Ludwig proposed offering it to every impoverished youth in the country, at the cost of about $2 billion per year—or 1 percent of the criminal justice budget.

While conducting the JTDC trial, a staff leader told Ludwig, “20 percent of the kids in here are just troubled kids. You let them go, they’re going to do bad things to other people and you just need to lock them up,” Ludwig said. “But the other 80 percent of the kids in here, I always tell them, if I can give you back just 10 minutes of your lives, none of you would be here.”

Minors involved in the BAM initiative learn skills and activities they might not otherwise be exposed to give them an outlet besides violence
Minors involved in the BAM initiative learn skills and activities they might not otherwise be exposed to give them an outlet besides violence

Currently, BAM programs are in place at nearly 40 CPS schools, serving more than 1,500 male teens. Going forward, researchers will continue to look for evidence that BAM, when combined with another educational component, is effective in preventing juvenile crime and increasing graduation rates.

Robert Listenbee, administrator at the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, acknowledged that running away from incarceration isn’t the answer—in some cases, it is necessary.

“But that confinement should be the kind of confinement that focuses on adolescent development and encourages them to exercise some judgment,” Listenbee said. “When they come out the education components ought to transition them to appropriate kinds of educational activities…so that they can go on to live productive and effective lives in our country.”

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