The situation in American prisons is evolving rapidly. The rights and health of more than 1.2 million people deprived of liberty in the region are at stake and must be made a priority. Some countries have taken measures such as blanket pardons for people convicted of non-violent crimes, restricting pretrial detention or modifying visitation rights. However, most countries have not yet taken concrete action. At the same time, some argue that the release of inmates will pose a threat to citizens. Others believe that, if done correctly, ex-prisoners will become productive members of society. The debate is divided between those who want to maintain public safety and those who advocate respecting the rights of incarcerated people.
Prison population and public safety
When considering any relief measure for prisoners, it is crucial to keep in mind that the prison population is not homogeneous. In practice, the level of risk to which citizens are exposed depends on the group of prisoners who would benefit from such measures. Recent examples from Italy and California provide fundamental considerations on this topic.
In 2006, Italy approved a collective pardon that authorized the immediate release of a third of its prison population. The pardon was granted on the condition that the prisoners who relapsed would have to additionally comply with the rest of their sentence that would have been pending.
On the other hand, people convicted of serious crimes, such as organized crime, terrorism, kidnapping and some sexual crimes, could not benefit from the pardon. However, a large number of individuals were released in a short period. As a result, crime increased dramatically and, after just 20 months, the prison population in Italy returned to the same level of overcrowding as it was before the amnesty.
Between 2011 and 2014, California passed a series of reforms that produced very different results than Italy. Its purpose was to decongest the prisons state and prisons counties, especially by relaxing penalties for drug offences and other non-violent crimes. Together, these measures reduced California’s prison population by more than a quarter. Unlike Italy, California was particularly selective in identifying beneficiaries and gradually defining new sentencing regimes. As a result, and as shown in a series of studies, there was no effect on violent crime and only a small increase in some specific property crimes. In practice, this allowed for a permanent reduction in the prison population that produced public savings that, according to reasonably conservative estimates, outweighed possible social costs in terms of public safety.
While the cases of Italy and California provide important clues, the current lockdown and strict social distancing policies create a unique context that makes it difficult to predict what the inmates’ behavior will be like upon release. However, the evidence connecting recidivism to labor market conditions is a good place to start.
Recidivism and local labor market conditions
Several factors influence the likelihood of ex-inmates returning to jail. A robust finding in the literature is that ex-inmates face enormous barriers to finding employment. More recent studies have shown that detrimental effects on the labor market can be directly attributed to pretrial detention in countries such as the United States. These findings may be especially concerning in the current context created by the pandemic. Unemployment rates around the world have risen dramatically. Only in the United States in the last five weeks, a total of 30 million people have filed applications for unemployment benefits. This is a historical record. These figures suggest that local working conditions in the US are rapidly worsening, and Latin American countries are not immune to this phenomenon.
The general public assumes that all inmates want to regain their freedom. However, recent events in Chile warn about the scope of this assumption, since more than 100 inmates chose not to accept an early release, citing the security of their jobs inside the prison as a reason. This further reinforces numerous investigations that have shown that the reintegration of ex-prisoners and parolees into the labor market depends, to a large extent, on labor market conditions at the time of release. A study out of 1.7 million criminals in California concluded that increased job opportunities in the construction and manufacturing sectors, upon release, is linked to a significant reduction in recidivism. These results are consistent with a study carried out in 43 US states that revealed that those prisoners who are released in counties with a greater supply of manual or low-skilled employment with higher median wages are significantly less likely to commit a new crime. These findings provide valuable insights into the extent to which current labor market conditions in specific sectors affect the likelihood of recidivism.
Action primarily warrants recognition of the rights of incarcerated. RestoreHER US.America is a leading example of an organization working in the best interest of incarcerated women in America.
RestoreHER US.America, Inc. is a Georgia-based policy advocacy reentry group led by and for females of color active in justice department. Through education, leadership, and policy reform, RestoreHER discusses the social determinants of criminalization and intersectionality of social inequality to defend dignity, reproductive justice, and restore the rights of all women directly affected by detention, arrests, and/or trauma.
Our goal is to improve the lives of women directly affected and work with those women in collaboration to stop the vicious cycle leading to mass incarceration for women of color and pregnant women in the south.