Recidivism in the United States

When Painesville Ohio Judge Michael Cicconetti gave a teenager convicted of skipping out on her taxi driver after a 30-mile trip the option of walking 30 miles in order to avoid a jail sentence, his actions made headlines. For some, Judge Cicconetti’s sentencing techniques may have been just a bit too creative. However, his way of fitting the punishment to the crime was nothing new to Painesville. Judge Cicconetti has also sentenced a young man to rehab and a viewing of the bodies of those who had died in alcohol-related car accidents after the man was involved in a drunken accident in which a woman and her husband were harmed. For a teen who had been listening to music too loudly, the judge sentenced her to 2 hours of silence in the forest. And a young man who pled guilty to stealing a bike was given a choice: 60 days in jail or 10 days of community service, one of which had to be spent riding a bike for charity. Like many defendants who have stood before Judge Cicconetti, he chose community service.

One of the main motives behind Judge Cicconetti’s creative methods: recidivism. According to ABC News, Cicconetti chooses to allow convicted criminals to avoid jail time by completing one of his more unique sentences—which is typically fitted to the crime.  When the crimes are small, or the offence is nonviolent in nature, jail time can pose more of a risk for offenders than a wake up call. “It starts small, and it gets bigger, so my whole train of thought here is that we have to stop them or prevent them – that conduct – from going further at the beginning stages. They get in jail. They get smarter criminally, and as they get smarter criminally, the offenses become greater.” His methods seem to have been effective. According to ABC News, Cicconetti claimed a 10% recidivism rate in 2015 when the national rate was 75%.

Judge Cicconetti isn’t the only one to reduce recidivism through alternative sentencing. The Washington-based research and advocacy group The Sentencing Project notes that California, New Jersey and New York have recently reduced incarceration rates by about 25%, in part through alternative sentencing measures. During the time that the incarceration rates went down, so did the rate of violent crimes that were committed in those areas. As The Sentencing Project noted, during the thirteen years spanning from the beginning of the century to 2012, New York and New Jersey experienced a decline of about 26% in incarcerations. During this time, the rate of violent crime dropped by 30% in New Jersey, and 31% in New York. Property crime rates also went down in this period.

Of course, this was not all due to alternative sentencing. In the early 1990’s New York had implemented the broken windows and the stop-and-frisk policies, both of which were fairly successful. So, in part, the drop in crime was due to new policies, and increased vigilance on the part of police in the area. At the federal level,  The Sentencing Project points to the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, and the Second Chance Act of 2008 as two pieces of legislation that aided in the drop in prison populations.

The link between the reduction in the rate of incarcerations and the rate of violent crime has been floating around for years as a reason to promote alternative sentencing or to even grant leniency. The nature of the crime and disposition of the offender are likely key in determining whether an alternative sentence would have a deterrent effect on the individual. But Judge Cicconetti’s success in decreasing the rate of recidivism in his jurisdiction through creative sentencing is a shining example of what can be accomplished when the justice system sets out to punish and rehabilitate individuals instead of simply “throwing the book” at them.

His methods showcase the solution to a problem that has long plagued the criminal justice system, but which has rarely been addressed effectively. For decades, prison time was widely seen to be the best way to punish criminals and to deter crime. Politicians have often made their careers by being “tough on crime.” According to the Vera Institute for Justice, Congress paid states that created legislation that increased the length of sentences for crime in 1994. But, while the desire to keep criminals off the streets is understandable, it ultimately does more harm than good once the individual is released.  This draconian way of punishing even minor nonviolent crimes puts small time criminals in prison to live in close proximity with other, and more violent, convicts. As Judge Cicconetti pointed out in an interview aired on ABC News, the demoralizing effect of living in a society of criminals has the potential to influence these nonviolent (or first time) offenders in the criminal world and push them towards a lifetime of deviance.

While traditional incarceration has long been thought to be the answer for creating a safer society, we have seen over the years how that sometimes not only does not work, but instead makes the situation worse for the individual, making it less likely he or she will live a productive and healthy life. This can have a ripple effect on society. Those who cannot find jobs, who struggle to maintain a normal life and choose to turn to criminal methods to meet their needs pose a substantially higher risk to those around them than the casual user or the minor thief. Those who are sent to prison cohabitate with other criminals for long periods of time, leaving them with little to do other than to learn the ropes of the criminal world.

In addition to all of these problems, the prison system of the United States is overwhelmed. The war on drugs has led to an immense number of nonviolent criminals doing time. This can be financially painful for taxpayers. It costs a lot of money to house an inmate, and the more that there are, the more necessary it is to build additional units on prisons, to enhance their housing capability and make them more secure. The more inmates there are, the more correctional officers are needed. Tight security is essential in overcrowded prisons, and all institutions must be kept up do date with equipment, proper sanitation and so on. The health care of inmates is also put on the shoulders of taxpayers, since most of them don’t have health insurance.

This is an expensive prospect, especially considering the cost of alternative sentencing is generally much less expensive, and – depending on the sentence – can completely eradicate the need to house an inmate. A sentence of community service, for example, also has the added benefit of providing  a civic good while helping participants to give back to society.

For Jordan Walsh, this was one of the main reasons he chose community service over jail time. ABC News has quoted him telling Nightline: “I can show people that I can do better in my community and show them I’m not just another person that will make a stupid mistake or do dumb decisions. And I want to show my community I can do better.”

Recent history has shown an increase in the use of alternative punishment. The courts are now more likely to sentence an individual to rehab, community service, or simply to fine them than to hand out a prison sentence. While this is promising, it’s not enough. The United States needs a uniform policy that addresses the sentencing of nonviolent criminals. The individuals themselves need to be afforded the opportunity to change, rather than falling into a cycle of criminal behaviour.