Three Doses of Criminal Justice Reality

“Prison is crime college.”

That’s what a former defendant of mine told me after serving several years in prison in a case I prosecuted during my 32 years as a federal prosecutor. Our paths crossed after he returned home and we talked about his prison experience.

He said, “What do you suppose a bunch of criminals crammed together all day talk about? Crime. How to commit it, and how to get away with it. Prison is crime college.”

Think about that, and let that dose of reality sink in.

It’s irrational to suppose that after offenders spend years of confinement in the concentrated company of criminals, they’ll emerge less criminal than went they went in. And yet, that’s the assumption upon which our current criminal justice system is built.

If sending criminal offenders to prison were effective in fighting crime, then at the rate at which we send people to prison in the United States, which is among the highest in the world, we should be living in an almost crime-free society. But, we’re not. Far from it.

A 2018 U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics report of research tracking prisoner recidivism – meaning repeat offenders recycled back to prison – covering 30 states over the 9-year period from 2005 to 2014, showed that an estimated 68% of released prisoners were rearrested within the first three years, 79% within 6 years, and 83% within 9 years.
We can’t keep doing the same things and expect different results.

I’m David Risley, founder and host of Justice Voices.

I speak from the perspective of over 30 years of experience as a federal and state prosecutor and from having served in the Illinois Governor’s Office as Director of Public Safety Policy.

Over the course of my career, I had a strong sense of duty to protect the public from those who would do them harm. I still do.

That sense of duty goes both ways, because one of the duties of a prosecutor in doing justice is to also protect the criminally accused and even convicted defendants from injustice.

I was proud to work for the Department of Justice, and I continue to have a strong sense of justice – justice for both the victims of crime and those who commit acts of crime. Justice, too, for the taxpayers who pay the enormous costs of our current criminal justice system, but in return too often get more crime in their communities, rather than less.

Let me give you a second dose of reality.

Prison does only one thing well – incapacitation of dangerous criminals. Make no mistake about it, the only realistic solution to the danger posed by some criminals is to incapacitate them by locking them up. The real questions are what happens with them after being locked up to prevent them from emerging from prison more dangerous than when they went in, and how long they should be kept in prison.

The problem with most criminal justice systems when it comes to dealing with dangerous people – including determinate or so-called truth in sentencing systems – is that some dangerous people are released too soon while others who aren’t dangerous or who are no longer dangerous are kept in prison too long, so long that continued imprisonment becomes counterproductive, as well as morally and fiscally indefensible.

People sent to prison should be kept there for as long as they’re dangerous, but no longer. That means the time of their release should be determined by their mindset, by their behavior in prison, and progress toward being eligible for release as determined through an ongoing process of threat assessment. And when release does come, it should be conditional, requiring a long period of good behavior.

Age is an especially important factor in assessing the dangerousness of youthful offenders as they age and mature. By law, young people are recognized as adults at age 18, but emerging science about brain development shows that most people don’t actually reach full maturity until about age 25. Before that, during teen years and early 20’s, an age bracket sometimes referred to as emerging adults, people, particularly males, are far more prone to reckless and dangerous behavior than at age 25 when their risk management and their long-term planning abilities have kicked in. While individual cases vary, as a general rule there may be little if any practical public safety benefit to long-term incarceration of fully matured adults for offenses committed in their youth.

But our overuse of prison is even more dramatically evident in light of the fact that most people sent to prison wouldn’t be considered by any reasonable standard to be dangerous in the first place. Rather, they’re sent to prison as punishment, not because of a public safety need for incapacitation. They’re sent to prison to teach them a lesson, but what lessons can we reasonably expect them to learn by sending them to crime college?

So, here’s that second dose of reality.

In 2018, while I was Director of Public Safety Policy in the Illinois Governor’s Office, I asked our Department of Corrections to provide me with the median time inmates spent in their custody. Not the mean time, which is average time, which can be misleading because it’s skewed upward by those serving long sentences. What I wanted to know was the median time, meaning the mid-point, the hinge point, the length of time at which half the prison population spends less and half spend more time in prison.

Right now, as you’re listening, how long do you think half the people in prison in Illinois spent in prison?

The answer? In fiscal year 2018 the median time inmates spent in prison was only 8 months.

Fully half the Illinois prison population spent only 8 months or less in prison—at huge taxpayer expense, the true costs of which are calculated by the Illinois Sentencing Policy Advisory Council (or SPAC) to be almost $70,000 per inmate per year.

Funding a state prison system at such huge expense to incarcerate people posing such a low threat to public safety that half the prison population stays for only 8 months or less is absolutely nuts!

That taxpayer money could be far more productively spent on local solutions to local crime problems using local resources, supported when necessary by state funding. Even incarcerating people at the county level is cheaper, calculated by the SPAC to be about $40,000 per inmate per year, which is still a major cost, as any county sheriff or thinking taxpayer can tell you. But, it’s a lot less than $70,000 to incarcerate people at the state level.

Moreover, I can just about guarantee that if the bulk of the expenses of incarcerating low-threat offenders fell on counties, rather than the state, counties would quickly find less expensive – and probably more effective – alternatives to prison as their solutions of choice for most of their local crime problems.

Now, for a third dose of reality.

In 2018, the SPAC released a report on the high cost of recidivism, defined as recycling people back to prison within three years of release (which, by the way, includes only those repeat offenders who’re caught). According to that report, the three-year rate of recidivism for those released from prison in Illinois was 43%, which is actually below the national average.

Here’s the kicker: The average cost associated with o ne recidivism event is over $150,000. Let me repeat that. The average cost associated with every event of recidivism – of which there are far too many – is over $150,000!

The SPAC estimated that given current recidivism trends, over the next 5 years recidivism would cost Illinois over $13 billion.

Recycling people back to prison is far more expensive than the cost of investing in proven in-prison programs and local support systems to enable returning citizens to successfully reenter the community after release from prison without returning to criminal activity.

Failure to adequately invest in effective reentry programs and support systems is fiscally inexcusable, but such unreasonable and irresponsible public policies will remain the norm as long as the public continues to see more prison as the solution rather than in reality that overuse of prison is a big part of the problem.

So, to recap, reality check #1 is that prison is crime college – with free tuition at taxpayer expense.

Reality check #2: In Illinois, half the prison population consists of people incarcerated there for 8 months or less at a true prison funding cost of almost $70,000 per prison inmate per year.

Reality check #3: Failure to adequately invest in proven reentry programs and local support systems for people returning to the community from prison results in an average cost of each recidivism event of over $150,000.

The same or similar realities also exist in other states.

Have I gotten your attention yet?

I hope so.

As a society, we’re as addicted to using prison as a solution to our crime problems as an addict is to using drugs, with many of the same kinds of ill effects. And over time the overuse of the prison drug blinds us to its harm, including its huge economic costs as money spent on prison overuse eats up funds that could otherwise be available to invest in far more effective public safety and public health solutions.

We also keep on using the drug of prison because withdrawal would be painful, including the pain that closing prisons would cause in communities in which staffing and supplying goods to prisons are a major source of employment and income, which naturally leads to considerable political resistance to efforts to reduce prison populations and close prisons.

Like an addict, it’s easier to live in a state of denial than to face reality and accept the necessity to make the sometimes painful decisions and changes required to get to a socially healthier and safer place in which more effective ways of solving crime problems are the norm and the use of prison is the exception rather than the rule.

Another reason we overuse prison is that, because most prison systems are funded by the state, from the perspective of counties sending people to prison rather than dealing with them locally is in effect a free lunch.

On every level, from state to local, we need to (1) align incentives with desired outcomes and (2) shift from a punishment paradigm of criminal justice to a problem-solving paradigm.

It’s time to stop living in a state of denial regarding our current approach to criminal justice and face reality, which is the first step to recovery.

Unlike in the past, we now know and have proven what it takes to achieve successful reentry into the community after release from prison.

What’ s lacking is the public support necessary to scale up those solutions to a level that would break the cycle of crime and prison.

People typically leave prison with fewer employment alternatives to crime than when they went in due to now having a felony conviction on their record, and often face fewer housing opportunities.

People do what they know, especially under pressure, especially when desperate to do whatever they see as necessary to survive – especially after graduating from crime college rather than a community college or job training program.

Facing fewer alternatives to crime upon release naturally leads all too often to a return to crime and prison.

Let that sink in. If it does, you’ll have taken a major step forward in understanding why our current strategy for fighting crime actually ends up in the long run feeding crime.

Prison should be a special purpose tool, not an all-purpose tool.

Moreover, logically, if we know what it takes to prevent people from committing crimes after release from prison, then we should be doing those same things at the front end to prevent people from committing crimes and going to prison in the first place.

The last thing we want from a public policy perspective is to require people to commit a qualifying crime before becoming eligible for programs and resource support necessary to prevent crime.

So, what would a better approach look like? I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but I sure understand a lot more now than when I first started my career as a prosecutor, and I now know a lot of subject matter experts, including not only people who study these things, but also people with lived experience with crime – people with experience with crime in their communities, sometimes even in their households; people with personal experience with committing crimes for which they went to prison, and with what it later took when released to enable them to successfully return to their communities and live law-abiding, productive, happy lives.

While serving in the Illinois Governor’s Office, in addition to working and consulting with one of the best teams of reform-minded professionals in the country and consulting with some of the foremost criminologist scholars in the country, I also had such opportunities as meeting with men who had returned to their communities after serving prison sentences for such things as gang-related murder, but who were now doing great professional and volunteer work in their communities to combat street violence.

I met with and listened to representatives of community organizations, especially faith-based organizations, with front line experience and insights regarding the causes and solutions to street violence in their neighborhoods – people who dealt with and worked to address the realities behind the violence in practical, realistic, and sometimes innovative ways – people and organizations that need and deserve more public support than they typically receive.

I also worked with politicians, which was an interesting and sometimes eye-opening experience. I saw some of the best and some of the worst aspects of a political approach to public policy-making and how for some politicians, criminal justice reform can be more a political slogan than the result of well-informed, well-reasoned discourse and deliberation, more about appearance than substance.

Moreover, even when serious policy proposals have been developed and proposed on a bi-partisan basis, such as the excellent 2016 Final Report of the Illinois State Commission on Criminal Justice and Sentencing Reform, which was developed before I came on board, there was insufficient political will to actually implement most of its well-founded recommendations, although some progress is being made, some to the overall good and some needing refinement as good intentions meet reality.

I strongly recommend you read that Commission report, regardless of what state you live in. The report is available on the website of the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority, which is itself an excellent resource for information about needed criminal justice reform.

While we’re on the subject of resources, I also recommend that you take a deep dive into the information available on the website of the Illinois Sentencing Policy Advisory Council, the SPAC.

Links to those and other resources are available on our website at

With that background in mind, let me now turn to why this Justice Voices podcast is being launched, and what we hope to achieve.

When I left the Governor’s office with a change in administration, I had come to the conclusion that in a political environment, trying to change public policy regarding criminal justice from the top down was usually as difficult as attempting to push a rope.

Politicians react and respond to public opinion, so I decided the best way to change public policy is to educate the public and thereby change public opinion. Changes in better informed public opinion and public expectations of political leaders will naturally lead to better public policy.

So, what will it take to change public understanding and appreciation of the issues and lead to widespread demand for better solutions?

I’ve concluded that the best way to achieve that is not with facts and figures, as important as they are, but by opening a door through which members of the public can meet many of the people whom I’ve met and to hear their stories, real-life stories of people with real-life experience with crime and the criminal justice system.

Such stories are what motivate me and give me a sense of mission regarding criminal justice reform. It’s because of the stories of the people I’ve met over the course of my career, including people I’ve prosecuted, that when I think of things that need to be improved in our criminal justice system, I think in terms of real people, with real stories, not abstractions with labels like “criminals,” or even “victims” or “police.”

Labels dehumanize. Stories humanize. Realistic solutions to human problems start with seeing everyone involved as real people and to be able to see the problem from various perspectives through their eyes.

Stories have the power to illuminate reality far better than facts and figures – and to change hearts, as well as minds.

That’s what Justice Voices is all about – to share stories that need to be told, voices that need to be heard regarding crime, criminal justice, and related issues.

Follow, like, and subscribe to our program. Visit our website at Spread the word by sharing with others.

Stick with us. The answers won’t all emerge at once, but as the conversations, the stories, and voices add up, the right questions and many of the right answers will emerge and become clear to you.

Some episodes will be intense. Some will be surprising. Many will restore or strengthen your faith in humanity.

It’ll be an interesting and fruitful ride as we give you the opportunity to see through the eyes of our guests and often to feel what they feel, opportunities most people never experience, but need for it to become clear what’ s necessary to improve our public safety and criminal justice systems.
This is Justice Voices: Eye-opening stories and commentary about justice, healing, and safer communities.