Grant Award: Graduated Reintegration

+ Richard Hahn

Unorthodox Philanthropy recently awarded a gift of $600,000 to NYU Marron’s Crime and Justice program to carry out groundbreaking criminal justice innovation in collaboration with the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority (ICJIA) and BOTEC Analysis. Termed “Graduated Reintegration” (GRI), this new initiative will combine scattered-site housing, swift-certain-fair sanctions & rewards, and technology-enabled supervision to reduce incarceration, recidivism, and victimization.

The United States has incarceration rates that dwarf those of other nations. Over a fifth of all prisoners worldwide are held in American prisons and jails. U.S. government entities spend an estimated $75 billion per year on corrections. Though the current rate of imprisonment does not reflect increased crime rates, mass incarceration does tend to create repeat offenders. Conventional incarceration fails approximately half of the time: national average recidivism rates hover near 50%, and recidivism creates a cycle of increasingly limited opportunities outside of crime. The mechanisms of incarceration and release from incarceration are largely to blame. Stress, measured by cortisol levels, spikes at the end of a prison sentence as inmates shift from an environment in which they have no freedom to one of total freedom, all in an extremely brief period. Unsurprisingly many former prisoners are unable to cope with this transition, especially given the attendant burdens of probation, stigmatization, loss of civil rights, and limited employment options.

The Crime and Justice program, led by Professor Mark Kleiman, proposes a new and more effective way to transition a prisoner from a cell to the street. Working with state and local law enforcement agencies, our research team will select people who would otherwise be incarcerated and move them to monitored residential apartment units. GRI represents a radical departure from the status quo because it relies on several critical insights and innovations:

  • The philosophical foundation of the program is a concept called “Swift, Certain, Fair” (SCF). In practice, SCF is a set of operating principles that includes clear rules, close monitoring, and quick, consistent, and proportionate penalties.
  • Complementing this system of sanctions is a process of “incremental reentry,” a mechanism that correlates sustained periods of compliance with some relaxation of restraints, such as later curfews or more opportunities for visitation.
  • Central to the success of this program will be the practice of scattered-site housing. Prisons concentrate people guilty of criminal behavior, which can create perverse incentives. GRI circumvents this pitfall. Further, a feeling of ownership over the space combined with the liberties accrued via compliance will teach inmates the benefits of playing by the rules.
  • This program can be operated for materially less than the cost of a prison cell in most states. With an estimated average cost that is far lower than the $2,600 required per month, per inmate for conventional incarceration, private apartments are economical. Additionally, as members of the community, offenders will have the opportunity to offset the cost of their incarceration by working for real wages on the open market. This will meliorate the long stretches of unemployment common among offenders.
  • We can meet our statutory and ethical responsibilities to keep the community safe with a security protocol that relies on digital video monitoring at the residences and offender tracking away from the residences.

High incarceration and recidivism rates in this country reflect an undue emphasis on retribution over actual correction. GRI seeks to reform offenders and help them reshape their lives, without the restrictions, expenses, and dangers of prison. Conventional corrections methods constitute a broken system, one that is ripe for profound improvement. To quote Unorthodox Philanthropy’s award statement:

“The need for criminal justice reform has been recognized as an urgent national priority by a diverse array of voices across the political spectrum. Today represents a unique opportunity to tap this political will in order to test new models like never before. If the Graduated Reintegration pilot proves successful in one jurisdiction, it’s likely others around the country will follow and, eventually, this model could administer justice to hundreds of thousands of offenders and defendants at a lower cost, with greater rehabilitative potential, and with lower risk to public safety.”

NYU Marron, the ICJIA, and BOTEC look forward to the launch of the GRI initiative. Our aim is to enable participants to gradually gain freedom based on sustained compliance and accomplishment, allowing them to transition steadily from being prisoners to being ordinary people with jobs, apartments, savings, and the experience of succeeding within the parameters of law-abiding society. We thank Unorthodox Philanthropy for its unique vision and generosity.  

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