Punishment, Not Programs

[Marc Debbaudt]

The history of criminal rehabilitation is the history of failure. Efforts to reform outlaws by creating programs that encourage them to change their behavior may seem noble. But they just don’t work.

Most of our current rehabilitation programs are enormously expensive wastes of time. Of the diversion, Prop. 36 and drug court models, the latter was the most successful because it carried with it the sting of incarceration as an incentive to abide by the rules. But even the best drug court in Los Angeles County succeeded only around 25 percent of the time. The misguided social experimenters are selling nonsense in the guise of unreflective compassion for the criminal. The few criminals who benefit simply don’t justify the colossal expense we incur for the majority who fail.

The most successful method of rehabilitation should be providing the education that criminals failed to obtain when they were young. More than four-fifths of the people behind bars have a history of absenteeism and dropping out of school. But even education doesn’t work. Why? Because failed parenting has led to a failed education system. But sadly, there is little social will to address anything as sacrosanct as parenting.

Deterrence is another approach to discouraging criminal offenders. It is based on the hope that consequences and accountability will dissuade people from committing crimes. Denying someone’s freedom used to be one of the greatest punishments available. Prison was so bad you never wanted to go there and or return after you were released. But today’s prisons are no longer god-awful places. We give prisoners books, magazines and TVs. We allow them ample opportunities to exercise, smoke, make alcohol, inject drugs and have tattoos etched all over their bodies. They get free medical and dental care. No wonder there so many recidivists who choose to keep going back to jail, prison or the penitentiary.

Rehabilitation, education and deterrence have all proved to be woefully inadequate approaches to deterring crime. That leaves us with one alternative: punishment.

Punishment is the concept that the criminal deserves to suffer for what he or she has done. When defense attorneys inform me that their client needs therapy and a program, I respond: “The greatest therapy is accountability. The greatest program of accountability is state prison.” But now that temple of accountability is failing just as profoundly as deterrence. When one federal judge declares that state prison is overcrowded, that’s all it takes to set hordes of inmates free. As a result, there is no accountability, and what little accountability is left is being undermined as too expensive.

The shrill supporters of rehabilitation shriek that the annual per-inmate cost of imprisonment is $40,000 a year. That’s certainly enormous. But their fiscally based argument is specious. Freeing criminals doesn’t save money; it’s simply a shell game that shifts the money to failed rehabilitation programs. Moreover, we’re never told how much it costs to set a criminal free. How much to place him on parole or probation or in a program that doesn’t work? How much does the next crime he commits cost the individual who is harmed or society in general? How many crimes does he commit before he gets caught? How much does it cost to catch him, arrest him, investigate the new crime, and prosecute him in the courts once again?

We’re not really saving money by setting criminals free. We’re passing the buck. For a few dollars more up front, we could save tons down the road.

Marc Debbaudt is President of the Association of Deputy District Attorneys. He can be contacted at mdebbaudt@laadda.com. The view and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of ADDA, which represents nearly 1,000 Deputy District Attorneys.