Matt Epperson, associate professor in the School of Social Service Administration, has seen the failures of mass incarceration first hand. For more than two decades, Epperson worked with incarcerated individuals as a social worker, including six years in a county jail in Michigan.
Epperson calls the revolving door of mass incarceration returning individuals to jail “the definition of insanity,” especially for individuals suffering from mental illness and drug addiction who failed to receive the help they truly needed.
Matt Epperson: I worked in a local jail. So any time a person was arrested in that county, they came to the jail. And some of these folks, I would see twice in the same night. They would get arrested, get bailed out, get arrested again.
Andrew Bauld: Matt Epperson has seen the failures of mass incarceration firsthand. For more than two decades, he worked as a social worker, witnessing men and women suffering mental illness and drug addiction fail to receive the kind of treatment they so desperately needed.
Matt Epperson: Just seeing how many times. We had folks who had been arrested hundreds of times over their lifespan. And just to think how ineffective that is, that we’ve done this thing over and over and over again, it’s sort of like the definition of insanity, right? Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. The vast majority of the folks I worked with in the jail needed something else than incarceration.
Andrew Bauld: Matt thinks he has a plan to fix the problem of mass incarceration. And if it works, it could cut the US incarcerated population in half. From the University of Chicago, this is Knowledge Applied, a podcast where we go inside the research reshaping everyday life. I’m Andrew Bauld. The United States leads the world in incarcerated people. Despite having five percent of the world’s population, it holds about 25 percent of prisoners. Matt Epperson is an associate professor in the School of Social Service Administration, and he works to study and reduce the disparities of the criminal justice system. Before coming to the university of Chicago, Matt worked for six years in a county jail in Michigan in the late nineties.
Matt Epperson: I was working mostly with people with serious mental illness that were coming in and out of the jail. That was sort of my introduction to incarceration and how widespread it was. And this was sort of at the peak of mass incarceration. Seeing how many people were locked up on a day to day basis where it probably wasn’t the best option for them, but there just weren’t other interventions available or being considered. And so being arrested and taken to jail just became the default response to so many other kinds of social problems. Not a whole lot has changed in 20 years.
Andrew Bauld: Data shows that the current system is beyond broken. Most people released from prison return within a few years. African Americans, Hispanics, the poor and the mentally ill are unequally subjected to incarceration. And although nearly three quarters of incarcerated individuals need substance abuse treatment, only 11 percent get help while behind bars. With all these failures, the US still spends over $50 billion a year on incarceration.
Matt Epperson: This is obviously a complex issue. A lot went into driving that. But one of the primary factors that people cite is the war on drugs, and a lot of the sentencing policies and law enforcement policies that went along with that, in terms of three strikes and you’re out, mandatory minimums for different kinds of drug possession, drug related charges. And so we ended up with the system that was much larger than it was initially, I would say, intended to be. And we also ended up incarcerating lots of folks that I would argue did not really need to be incarcerated.
Andrew Bauld: Matt’s efforts, along with a colleague from Washington University at St. Louis, has grown into the Smart Decarceration Initiative, a program utilizing the field of social work to apply policy and behavioral interventions to sustainably reduce the incarcerated population.
Matt Epperson: We’re aiming for a reduction of about a million people overall, so almost to cut it in half, we think that’ll take a period of a good at least 10 years, probably 10 to 20 years. We’re going to need to learn as we’re decarcerating what’s working and what to do more of, what to do less of, but even if we cut it in half within the next 10 to 20 years, that would basically be decarcerating at a rate about twice the speed at which we had mass incarceration.
Andrew Bauld: The majority of incarcerated individuals will come from state prisons and local jails, and who are identified as non threats to public safety, in particular, those with mental illness or drug offenses. Matt also wants to refocus efforts to offer alternative interventions to prevent incarceration.
Matt Epperson: There are lots of things that put folks at risk of incarceration that we could invest in changing, such as access to education, access to better treatment for substance abuse and mental illness, job infrastructures. We can’t just change drug law policies. We need to change how we allocate resources.
Andrew Bauld: All of this may sound like a novel idea, but it’s not the first time a major system in the United States has attempted such a dramatic change. In 1963, president John F. Kennedy signed into law the Community Mental Health Act with the goal of reforming state run psychiatric hospitals.
Matt Epperson: At that point, our state run asylums and state run psychiatric hospitals were growing, and there was a greater awareness of how the conditions in those hospitals were inhumane.
Andrew Bauld: Within 10 years, deinstitutionalization had reduced the population in asylums by 50 percent, but rather than save a broken system, it only helped in creating another.
Matt Epperson: Having a couple decades now of a long view on this, deinstitutionalization was definitely not successful by most measures, because people with mental illness are more likely to be homeless now, they’re more likely to not get their treatment needs met, often end up in jails and prisons. And so as we were looking at some of these same is issues with an institution that was sort of busting at the seams and calls for really changing it, we didn’t want to just take an approach to say, “Well, we just need to cut those numbers,” like we said with deinstitutionalization, but we wanted to try to articulate a sort of approach to this that would be thoughtful, that would have evidence based plans, and that would involve an understanding that there needs to be a considerable investment of resources to make this happen.
Andrew Bauld: Matt believes we might be at a tipping point for reversing mass incarceration. In 2009, the prison population plateaued for the first time after nearly four decades of growth, and has decreased every year since.
Matt Epperson: It really is about what we’ve called sort of a perfect storm. There’s an accumulation of evidence that it’s not yielding the kinds of outcomes that we would want, such as rehabilitation, because three quarters of folks released from prison and come back within five years. There’s a much greater social awareness around the ills of mass incarceration.
Andrew Bauld: And those ills are no longer confined to just academic settings. These issues have become the central stories of popular television shows, podcasts, bestselling books, like The New Jim Crow, and documentaries like 13th, which recently won four Emmy awards.
Matt Epperson: There’s also a very different way that the criminal justice system and incarceration is being talked about politically. There’s much more bipartisan agreement that we need to reform the criminal justice system and that it’s ineffective.
Andrew Bauld: There’s also a good argument to sway politicians.
Matt Epperson: At the federal level in states and in local governments are looking at different ways of spending less, still as a result of the great recession. What I’ve found just anecdotally in my own work as a clinician, and then over the years looking at this from a research point of view, is that the bulk of folks who are incarcerated are not direct threats to public safety. And so if we think about the huge expenses that are incurred when we incarcerate folks, so in Illinois, it’s about $1.4 billion a year. Nationwide, it’s well over $50 billion a year that we spend in incarceration. If we’re spending that much money to incarcerate lots of folks who don’t necessarily need that intense of a level of intervention, then there’s this whole host of other things we could be doing that we’re simply not doing enough.
Andrew Bauld: But simply reducing the incarcerated population isn’t the silver bullet for prison reform, and the reduction needs to happen in a sustainable and socially just manner to avoid the pitfalls of deinstitutionalization.
Matt Epperson: It’s about redressing existing disparities in the criminal justice system. The most notable of those are racial disparities and behavioral health disparities. Just the rates of substance abuse and mental illness that are in prisons and jails.
Andrew Bauld: Matt says that along with new policies, there must also be a recognition that racism and other forms of structural inequality influence these disparities.
Matt Epperson: We could reduce the incarcerated population and actually make disparities worse if we’re not targeting intentionally the kinds of disparities that have happened, with African Americans being in prison, making up about 40 percent of the prison population, where they only make up about 13 percent of the general population. So those things don’t occur by accident, and we can’t naively think that, “Well, let’s just reduce incarceration rates and those disparities will disappear.” They may actually get worse. So the socially just piece is saying, “As we do this, we need to be really intentionally focusing on those kinds of outcomes and making sure we’re not making them worse.”
Andrew Bauld: Most people are initially hesitant when they hear the idea of reducing prison populations, and those fears need to be allayed if there are hopes of making these changes a reality.
Matt Epperson: Part of it is that, for some, there’s a sort of a strong, I don’t want to go so far as they call it a myth, but it’s this assumption that locking people up makes us safer. And so talking about locking fewer people up can feel threatening to some. If we are going to lessen the use of incarceration, we need to do so in ways that don’t put public safety at risk, because one, we wouldn’t want to do that in terms of there wouldn’t be much tolerance for that. And two, we do believe that there are much better ways of addressing many crimes and undesirable behaviors that won’t risk public safety. So we need to sort of constantly be looking at that as we’re looking at ways to reduce incarceration.
Andrew Bauld: Matt cites examples like Illinois governor Bruce Rauner’s efforts through a commission to reduce the use of prisons by 25 percent statewide, and similar approaches in New York City. They highlight the changes in political and social attitudes towards prison reform that didn’t exist even a decade ago. Of course, that progress comes with a caveat.
Matt Epperson: Now, I can’t say all that without also recognizing that at the federal level, we do have some rhetoric around reenacting the war on drugs with our current attorney general. I would say that is alarming, but it doesn’t reflect what we’ve seen as the bulk of sort of the political discourse around this issue that’s happening across the States.
Andrew Bauld: Matt and the Smart Decarceration Initiative are also working on innovative ways to keep people from becoming incarcerated in the first place.
Matt Epperson: One of the projects that I’m working on is we’re really trying to look at front end innovations, front end criminal justice innovations, that can reduce people being locked up in the first place. One of the key sites that we think is important is that in the role of the prosecutor. Prosecutors have a huge amount of leeway in the criminal justice system, in terms of what charges are being leveled on somebody, how many and what kinds of charges, how they pursue them. And I and a colleague at Washington University and St. Louis are looking at deferred prosecution programs, which are a special kind of prosecutorial innovation, where they basically delay prosecuting a charge in lieu of providing some other kind of service, whether it’s assessment, whether it’s some linkage to treatment, or even if it’s just in with some misdemeanors, just to say, “Keep your nose clean for six months and don’t get in any more trouble. And if you can show us that you can do that, then we’ll dismiss the original charge.”
Matt Epperson: So we’re studying those deferred prosecution programs in Milwaukee County, Cook County and St. Louis City to try to develop some sort of standardized language around what those programs mean, and to eventually design a study to the look at outcomes.
Andrew Bauld: This past November, the Smart Decarceration Initiative hosted their second national conference to share new research and policy. The conference featured a range of speakers, including Illinois Senator Dick Durban, State’s Attorney Kim Fox, and writer and civil rights activist, Shaun King, showing the support the decarceration effort has built.
Matt Epperson: Decarceration has become sort of more than just a technical term, but it’s more of a movement. It’s more of a recognition that there’s a social will to change that system.
Andrew Bauld: But for all its growth, there are still misconceptions around criminal justice reform that need to be cleared up for the general public.
Matt Epperson: We, as a society, often are a little bit of immune to data. So violent crime rates across the board all over the United States have really plummeted over the last 25 years, and even though there has been an increase in gun violence, especially in Chicago, over the last few years, the rates of violent crime in Chicago are nothing compared to what they were in the ‘80s. And so I think that’s the other thing to say, that we’ve incarcerated all these folks and there’s really little proof that that has anything to do with the declining crime rates. And so we could safely decarcerate lots of those folks without jeopardizing public safety.
Andrew Bauld: Knowledge Applied is a production of the University of Chicago, to learn more, visit us at news.uchicago.edu. Subscribe to Knowledge Applied on iTunes, Stitcher, and wherever else you get your podcasts, and stay tuned for our next series coming this spring. It’s called Big Brains, where you’ll hear interviews with transformative thinkers, changing the way you see the world. Thanks for listening.
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