Alternatives to Incarceration: Programs & Treatment

Instructor: Melanie Norwood

Melanie has taught several criminal justice courses, holds an MS in Sociology concentrating in Criminal Justice & is completing her Ph.D. in Criminology, Law & Justice.

In this lesson we will consider alternatives to incarceration, how they deviate from the traditional model of incarceration, and how they offer cost-saving options to the criminal justice system. We will examine several examples of alternatives to incarceration and explain the types of offenders most often targeted by these programs.

Alternatives to Incarceration

If you've watched Law & Order: Special Victims Unit you've likely seen episodes where the offender committed a crime because they suffered from some mental or emotional condition which kept them from thinking rationally. Accordingly, the District Attorney didn't think it was appropriate to send this person to prison. So he sent the offender somewhere else that would be more beneficial. This lesson will explore what some of those alternatives to incarceration are, how the processes work, the methods of treatment used, and what kinds of offenders they are designed to help.

The Incarceration Model and Alternatives to Incarceration

The criminal justice system is designed to punish offenders for their crimes and send those who commit a serious crime to prison. The problem with that model is that it doesn't take into consideration persons who break the law because they have a mental or psychological problem. It is strictly focused on accountability and assumes the offender chose to break the law. Alternatives to incarceration take into account that offenders aren't always of sound mind and able to make such decisions. The root cause of their criminal behavior must be addressed while still punishing the offender for his or her actions. However, it's important to remember that not all alternatives to incarceration are available everywhere.

Costs of Incarceration versus Alternatives to Incarceration

Sending offenders to prison is an expensive process -- millions of taxpayer dollars are spent every year on prison inmates. However, treatment in the community is a far less expensive alternative, particularly when it's more effective at addressing the source of the problem that led to the crime in the first place. Many crimes are committed by people who are addicted to drugs, alcohol, or are using these substances to cope with underlying mental or emotional issues. Allowing these offenders to be treated in the community (and not in prison) also allows them to keep their jobs, live at home, and maintain their ties with their families. These aspects are more conducive to preventing re-offending than having the person go to prison and eventually be released. Prisons are not ideal in addressing the issues that sent many inmates to prison in the first place. Thus there is a movement towards reducing the number of offenders being sent to prison and exploring other less expensive and more effective options when they exist.

Examples of Alternatives to Incarceration: Programs and Community Resources

In many areas, specialized or problem-solving courts are one option for dealing with certain types of offenders to avoid sending people to prison. Specialized courts can handle a single type of issue as opposed to the offender going through the traditional criminal court system. Examples of specialized courts include mental health courts, drug courts, drunk driving courts, or prostitution courts. For instance, mental health courts have emerged to deal with persons charged with an offense who are deemed mentally unstable. The case is transferred from the major or minor criminal court in which it originated to a mental health court. This type of court has connections with community programs that deal with mentally ill offenders, offering (and mandating) counseling, monitoring and therapeutic services, linking them to low-cost pharmacies to acquire needed psychological medications. The offender presents in court on a scheduled basis and both the offender and a liaison from the program (often a social worker and/or a clinician/therapist) present status updates to the judge on how the offender is progressing in managing their illness. Eventually, there are graduation ceremonies for offenders who successfully complete the program. In many specialized courts the charges are dropped by the state when the offender graduates from the program. Drug courts aimed at offenders charged with minor possession charges operate in a similar fashion, complete with frequent urinalysis monitoring and substance abuse therapy.

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