The Return of Halfway Houses?

Mark Kleiman, Angela Hawken and Ross Halperin argue for the return of a technological halfway house. The “house” would be any apartment but monitored:

For the transition from prison to life outside to be successful, it needs to be gradual. If someone needed to be locked up yesterday, he shouldn’t be completely at liberty today. And he shouldn’t be asked to go from utter dependency to total self-sufficiency in one flying leap. He needs both more control and more support. Neither alone is likely to do the job.

Of course, both control and support cost money. But so does prison. The trick is to start the re-entry process before what would otherwise have been the release date, so the money you spend in the community is balanced by the money you’re not spending on a cell.

…Start with housing. A substantial fraction of prison releasees go from a cellblock to living under a bridge: not a good way to start free life. Spend some of the money that would otherwise have financed a prison cell to rent a small, sparsely furnished efficiency apartment. In some ways, that apartment is still a cell and the offender still a prisoner. He can’t leave it or have visitors except as specifically permitted. The unit has cameras inside and is subject to search. But he doesn’t need guards, and doesn’t have to worry about prison gangs or inmate-on-inmate assault.

Drug testing and sanctions can avoid relapse to problem drug use; GPS monitoring can show where the re-entrant is all the time, which in turn makes it easy to know whether he’s at work when he’s supposed to be at work and at home when he’s supposed to be at home. This makes curfews enforceable and keeps him away from personal “no-go” zones (the street corner where he used to deal, the vicinity of his victim’s residence). GPS would also place him at the scene of any new crime he might commit, thus drastically reducing his chances of getting away with it and therefore his willingness to take the gamble.

The apartment functions as a prison without bars.

I appreciate the idea but worry about how many people will end up monitored and for how long. In one way, the problem today is too much monitoring. The easier access to online databases, for example, means that today an arrest record follows one for life. Ten percent of all non-incarcerated men have a felony conviction (even larger numbers have an arrest record). Among blacks, 25% of non-incarcerated men have a felony conviction. Most importantly, an arrest, let alone a felony conviction, makes it very difficult to get a job or in some cases even an apartment.

Ban the box laws, which restrict some kinds of background checks, may be useful. There is a kind of prisoner’s dilemma for background checks. It makes sense for every firm to do a background check (especially when they are so cheap) but when all firms do background checks former felons cannot reintegrate into society and crime ends up being higher than it would be if fewer firms did background checks.


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