So it’s picking up steam – the de-incarceration dialogue. Key political figures, bipartisan coalitions, conservatives and liberals, foundations and advocacy groups are coalescing around the fact that the United States has built a massive system of prisons and jails but failed to achieve its overarching public safety goals. Recidivism rates are unacceptable (adult and juvenile); youths are pervasively harmed in various jails, lockups, institutions and prisons across the country; many juvenile justice “systems” have less-than-acceptable outcomes relative to individual and community functioning after youths interact with the juvenile justice system – yet prison spending alone is now estimated at $74 billion annually (about $7.4 billion to private prisons according to Vera Institute and Council of State Governments). What!?
Imagine what your state or community could do with a fraction of that spending if you had a cohesive, science-driven and health-focused (e.g., nurturing communities, prevention-focused) system of care for all families, not just vulnerable ones. We know from prevention research that with wise investments in health care, school-community and youth/family interventions, we can save billions of dollars over the lifetime of children and youth that receive such interventions. Yet we seem to be pushing hard to de-incarcerate without the broader dialogue as to how to properly invest and scale effective programs in these three critical areas.
I love that we’re talking about closing prisons and focusing our work at the community level. I’m very happy that we acknowledge our disappointments over “get tough” criminal justice policies such as mandatory minimums, structured sentencing that disallows flexibility and common sense in dealing with lower risk offenders — I also love that the discussion is an intelligent one that includes budget, policy, and multiple impact layers and is not just a one-dimensional conversation (e.g., budgetary savings alone). Yet what I’m not hearing loudly enough are conversations to help shape the national vision for what healthy communities can and should look like. Why aren’t we having concomitant discussions as to how to invest our intervention dollars in prevention strategies with proven records of success and in developmentally appropriate ways? Why aren’t we expanding Nurse-Home Visiting Partnerships all over the map? Investing in anti-bullying programs and the Good Behavior Game in elementary schools? Funding universal high-quality pre-kindergarten? Offering affordable, community-based programs such as Strengthening Families and ecologically scaled efforts like Communities That Care? Broadening healthy nutrition programs? There are many other great interventions and approaches – these are listed as examples.
The list goes on and on. And one answer is that while we’ve been investing in prevention science, we’ve invested much less in learning HOW to bring successful evidence-supported practices to widespread scale, in culturally and contextually relevant ways so that many more could benefit from these successful interventions.
So I strongly encourage everyone in the de-incarceration dialogue to invest in the future of prevention (before we start shutting down prisons without appropriate community-based solutions). Let’s work hard to shift dollars away from ineffective and in fact overly punitive public safety responses toward technologies and solutions that, when combined with effective public health strategies (e.g., surveillance, community mapping, and population-based prevention / early interventions) contribute to more nurturing, positive communities. Let’s create a measured plan where we build healthy communities by investing in these approaches and at the same time reduce our unsuccessful dependence on incarceration strategies. By engaging populations at early and appropriate points on the developmental continuum – we can really have the communities that we all deserve and feel much more positive about our investments in our families and institutions.