Alternatives to Incarceration: What the Research Says
The path that leads one to commit a criminal offense often intersects a number of complex factors. One who is without access to healthcare, stable housing, employment/education opportunities, transportation, and prosocial support will confront conditions which strengthen the incentives to engage in criminal behavior. To solve for these factors aids in reducing recidivism and allows one to be a positive, thriving member in their community.
Incarceration, which encompasses confinement in both jails and prisons, remains a pivotal component to our criminal justice system. However, over the past 50 years, the United States has imprecisely utilized incarceration as a sanction; not sufficiently accounting for the type of offense, offender’s criminal background, perceived threat to society, efficacy in reducing recidivism, or cost-effectiveness. Despite incarceration rates declining in recent years, the US still comprises approximately 25 percent of the world’s prison population, and only about 4 percent of the global population.21 In 2019, Wisconsin and Minnesota collectively imprisoned over 30,000 residents, with rates of 376 and 174 per 100,000, respectively.20 There is a common misconception that higher incarceration rates lead to lower crime rates and safer communities. It is important to note that expansion of incarceration primarily increases the imprisonment rates of those who commit nonviolent, “marginal,” and/or infrequent offenses.21
Take nonviolent drug offenders as an example. In such cases, a comprehensive treatment plan which addresses their chemical dependency and all underlying factors is essential in reducing recidivism. These individuals are appropriate candidates for an alternative to incarceration program, such as drug court. Evidence has shown that programs which offer comprehensive services (e.g. substance use treatment, employment opportunities, stable housing, public benefits, access to medical care, and positive community engagement) can significantly reduce criminal activity among participants.16, 21 Incorporation of evidence-based practices such as risk/needs assessments and cognitive behavioral interventions have also shown to reduce recidivism.9, 14, 16, 21
By reducing jail overcrowding, alternatives to incarceration can also benefit those who are imprisoned; allowing those imprisoned to receive necessary, individualized services in a setting more conducive to rehabilitation. With that said, in order for alternative sanctions to reduce incarceration, it is imperative to employ a system that facilitates successful completion of these sanctions. For example, the intensiveness of the sanction should be proportional to the offense. Expectations must be realistic, and barriers to successful completion must be addressed. ACS staff collaborate with participants and community corrections personnel to ensure conditions are in place which will yield success.
Moreover, alternatives to incarceration are cost-effective across various domains. If applied within a context that fosters success, alternatives can substantially reduce corrections spending. This cost-effectiveness extends far beyond corrections budgets. For example, by providing alternatives which allow participants to remain active members in their communities, lost wages are recovered.19 Savings accumulated as a result of alternative sanctions can be reinvested into initiatives that improve the long-term well-being of our communities.
Click to learn more about each alternative sanction. In partnership with the Wisconsin Department of Corrections, Wisconsin Department of Health Services, United States District Courts, Minnesota Department of Corrections, and various Wisconsin counties, ACS provides each alternative sanction with fidelity. See also our complete list of programs and services.
Residential Service Programs
Day Reporting Centers
Community Service Programs