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The Commission On Safety And Abuse In America’s Prisons is urging a renewed emphasis on rehabilitation.
updated 6/7/2006 11:00:11 PM ET 2006-06-08T03:00:11

While prison populations are growing astronomically, money for rehabilitation is not keeping pace, fueling violence behind bars, a private group says.

The Commission On Safety And Abuse In America’s Prisons is urging a renewed emphasis on rehabilitation, an approach it says was devalued in the 1970s as politicians promoted get-tough-on-crime policies.

The panel is co-chaired by former federal Appeals Court Judge John J. Gibbons, the attorney who successfully argued in the Supreme Court that detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, should have access to U.S. courts; and Nicholas Katzenbach, whose work as U.S. attorney general during the Johnson administration and deputy attorney general during the Kennedy administration helped desegregate the South.

Almost 2.2 million people were in federal and state prisons and local jails last year, up from 1.5 million in 1995. Prisons account for about two-thirds of all inmates, and local jails house the rest.

The commission said it heard from criminologists, psychologists, corrections professionals and community advocates warning about dangers associated with warehousing inmates.

“Few conditions compromise the safety and security of a correctional institution more than idle prisoners,” the commission concluded.

The old pessimism about rehabilitation was misguided, said the report.

Programs that help prisoners understand the motivations underlying their actions and the consequences of their behavior can reduce misconduct and lower recidivism rates by at least 10 percent, said the commission, quoting recent research.

Education programs in corrections facilities reduce rule-breaking and disorder and post-secondary education can cut recidivism rates by nearly half, but only 5 percent of prisoners are enrolled in any form of post-secondary education, the report added.

Katzenbach said that getting inmates enough training in jail is a key to reducing the rate at which they commit crimes once they are back on the street.

“If you can reduce it even by a small amount you can save a huge amount of money,” Katzenbach said in a telephone call with reporters. “You can’t put a lot of people in jail and spend nothing and expect to get results.”

The experiences inmates have in prison — whether violent or redemptive — do not stay within prison walls, but spill over into the rest of society, said Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., chairman of a subcommittee that on Thursday will review the findings of the report. Entitled “Confronting Confinement,” the commission’s work was funded by the Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit group.

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