James Q. Wilson has remarked several times in this symposium that programs for prisoners will have only small effects, and we are better off supporting programs for young children. The implication is that we should divert some spending from prisons to early-child programs. Some early child programs have shown impressive long-term results, but I think it would be a mistake to reduce prison populations without also expanding programs for released prisoners. Some programs, such as transitional employment, can virtually pay for themselves. These programs provide community service jobs under close supervision at minimum wages. Because of the services they provide and the paychecks that flow to poor communities, the programs are intrinsically valuable, providing important benefits to adults with virtually no employment history. Yes, graduates of these employment programs often show only modest reductions in recidivism. But if that is the standard, we should also ask how much prison reduces recidivism.* By this measure, I think transitional employment and other prisoner re-entry programs are important supplements for a system of reduced sentences.
* Critics will say that prison may not reduce recidivism, but it incapacitates criminals from crime and deters would-be offenders. Intensive community programming and supervision is also strongly incapacitative. The difference is that crime in prison against prison staff and inmates is uncounted in our assessments of prison incapacitation. A good case can also be made against the deterrent effect of severe punishment, but that’s a longer topic for another post.