Dan Krisch
Dan Krisch ()

I am demanding more bang for our buck. On Tuesday, New York City agreed to pay $10 million to settle the wrongful conviction suit filed by Jabbar Collins. The deal with Collins, who spent 15 years in prison for the 1994 murder of a Brooklyn rabbi, is the Big Apple’s third multi-million dollar mea culpa this year: The City has struck similar deals with the Central Park five ($40 million) and wrongful murder-convictee David Ranta ($6.4 million). With a series of such exonerations forcing open governmental pocketbooks of late – Connecticut’s included – perhaps we are ready, at last, to shift our focus from a pound of cure to a pinch of prevention.

The definition of insanity, Einstein supposedly quipped, is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results. By that standard, our nation’s criminal justice strategy belongs in Bellevue. We have spent the past four decades locking up millions and spending hundreds of billions – mostly casualties of our failed war on drugs – because we stubbornly believed that mass incarceration was the answer to crime. And it now seems likely that we will shell out hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars to compensate the innocents whom we locked up alongside the guilty.

To be sure, our draconian, lock-em-up strategy sometimes produced short-term results, but it also birthed a monster that gorges itself on recidivism and socio-economic decay. We have been standing at the wrong end of the assembly line, intently looking for (and tossing aside) defective products instead of fixing the machinery that made them. While there is not a perfectly straight line from that mistaken focus to wrongful convictions, our over-emphasis on prosecution and incarceration necessarily causes collateral damage. If you only round up the cows and never try to shut the barn door, costly mistakes are inevitable.

Mind you, I am not impugning the good faith, hard work and skill of police and prosecutors; this is a systemic failure, not an individual one. We are all accountable for it because we are all responsible for our societal priorities. Nor am I, to borrow Barbara Tuchman’s description of French Socialist Jules Guesde, an Impossibilist, dreaming of a world without crime or prisons. Some of both are a fact of life; what lies within our control is the amount of each that we must tolerate.

To that end, imagine for a moment if we could have used the money that we are spending to compensate the Jabbar Collins’s of the world for programs that attack the root causes of crime rather than cleaning up its consequences: drug treatment instead of drug interdiction; housing for the homeless instead of vagrancy arrests; better schools and more job training instead of dead-end lives; reducing recidivism instead of building more prisons. (There may be some quiet, but determined, corporate opposition to the last of these – in some states, prisons and probation programs are very profitable, privately-run businesses.)

Happily, one of the few beneficent by-products of the Great Recession has been an unlikely alliance on this issue between liberals, fiscal conservatives and libertarians. Austerity, it seems, makes strange bedfellows. In many parts of the country, including Connecticut, incarceration rates are down sharply and efforts at reform are underway.

One promising approach – which taps into our natural human tendency to pursue enlightened self-interest – is the use of “social impact bonds” (also known as “pay for success” bonds). SIB’s, which began in Great Britain in the late ‘aughts,’ are an investment vehicle designed to fund programs with a positive societal goal based on measurable savings to the public fisc. So, for example, bonds that fund a program aimed at reducing recidivism would, if the program produces measurable results, pay a profit to the bondholders from the money that the state would not have to spend on incarceration. Although SIB’s have not yet come to Connecticut, Massachusetts and New York City both have launched SIB-funded endeavors.

Of course, SIB’s are only a tree, not the forest. The big question is what we will do with yet more evidence that we need to alter our collective thinking about crime and crime prevention. I only hope that, as Churchill described the Battle of El Amien, if we are not at the beginning at the end, at least we are at the end of the beginning.