Why do we send people to jail?

That question has been on my mind quite a bit these days. Between shows like Orange is the New Black and talk about mandatory minimums, I’ve started thinking about why jail makes sense as a punishment for non-violent offenders. For violent offenders or people that need detox or mental care, I can understand locking them up for public safety or for treatment, respectively. Anyway, I got some book suggestions from lawyer friends and will read some of them in the next few months.

That’s the context for why this program, JusticeHome, caught my eye:

Sending a mother and two children to Drew House costs $34,000, compared with $129,000 to keep her in prison for a year and to put those children in foster care, Mr. Hynes said. The stay-at-home program will cost even less, $10,000 to $15,000 per woman, per year, Ms. Lerner said.

JusticeHome will be available only to women, mostly mothers, who plead guilty to felonies in which they face a minimum of six months in prison. They will be visited several times a week by case managers from the Women’s Prison Association, receive counseling about jobs, schools and management of their homes and children. Some will be required to have treatment for drug addiction and mental illness.

With a judge’s approval, a woman’s traditional sentencing will be delayed, and if she completes the program successfully, the charges against her will be dismissed. The association anticipates that an average woman will spend six to eight months under its supervision.

Ms. Lerner acknowledged that the women’s homes and neighborhoods are often the source of the sparks or enticements that lead to drugs or crime. But she said, “Our goal is to help them change the way they function in those environments so they are able to live in a safe way.” Even if a woman goes to prison, she said, she will eventually have to cope in her home environment.

It’s an interesting experiment, one I hope works. Found it via a post about Piper Kerman’s op-ed in the Times about stopping the relocation of all the female prisoners at Danbury penitentiary to other federal facilities.

Also, if you haven’t been watching Orange is the New Black, you really should give it a shot. It handles some tough material in a way that’s approachable for those of us that don’t deal with this reality all the time. Hopefully, it opens some eyes about prison life and our penal system. IMHO, we put too many people behind bars, and too often for stupidly minor offenses. I’d rather see people make good for their crimes than spend time behind bars. I’m not sure what that means exactly, in a practical, programatic way, but that’s why I’m starting to read about this.

Also, tangentially related, if you haven’t read Sarah Stillman’s article in the New Yorker on the proliferation and abuse of civil forfeiture laws, you really, really ought to. This should be another issue that liberals, conservatives and libertarian types should be able to find some common ground on.