Photo by Robert Crow

As the midterm elections approach, candidates around Connecticut will aim to distinguish themselves from their competitors and appeal to a variety of voters. Advertisements are everywhere you turn, declaring that one candidate prioritizes decreasing taxes while another is focused on improving schools. You may even hear a candidate state that they are “tough on crime.” I mean, talk about increasing your appeal! Do voters like crime? Not a chance!

Yet, this “tough on crime” approach should have you asking “Well… what do you really mean by that?”

At its core, the criminal justice system aims to punish crime and, in prominent theory, works to minimize and correct criminal activity through its threat of sanctions and punishments. Working within this mindset, if you are “tougher” against crime, then you will prevent more of it.

However, methods currently employed by the criminal justice system are yielding results at odds with the system’s own purpose and goals.

We need not look further than the cyclical nature of justice involvement to see how these current methods are failing. To observe this cycle, we measure recidivism, or the relapse into previous criminal behavior.

Recidivism is typically measured as a return to prison or jail after initial punishment. However, recidivism is more nuanced in practice, as there are several ways one can recidivate. For example, technical violations of probation and parole are common causes of recidivism — as people may fail to maintain employment or cross state lines without prior approval. Additionally, people may be arrested for a new or different crime.

Moreover, recidivism is commonly used as a core measure of the success of the criminal justice system, given that, if the system was effective, it would deter or prevent future crime through correcting criminal activity by punishment and sanctions.

However, in Connecticut, almost 80% of people are re-arrested within five years of their release and 50% returned to prison. As measured by recidivism, our current “tough” punishments are largely ineffective at limiting future justice involvement. Consider a study on supermax confinement which found that harsh programing, where people are isolated for 23 hours of the day in a single cell, does not significantly reduce recidivism compared with programs without supermax confinement. Other studies show that increasing the severity of punishment, such as increasing the length of incarceration, is often associated with increased levels of recidivism. These harsh and “tough” punishments do not provide the assumed deterrent effect as initially planned!

When we turn to consider parole and probation, there is a similar story to be told. Studies indicate the increased intensity of supervision, such as having more frequent visits with a probation or parole officer, can be positively correlated with recidivism, usually related to technical violations and absconding.

Further, people returning from time incarcerated face collateral consequences (i.e., an indirect civil punishment that further imposes consequences beyond the initial punishment of incarceration or supervision). For instance, previously incarcerated people may face harsh employment and housing practices that limit opportunities for those with criminal records.

Specific subpopulations experience an even greater burden as a result of policy-driven systemic inequities. For instance, many communities of color are over-policed, creating heightened scrutiny and surveillance; and some low-income areas have inadequate transportation that limits a person’s ability to get to the job they are required to have by the terms of their release.

Is that tough? Or plain unjust?

With all of this evidence, can we really accept that being “tough on crime” is the best way forward? I think not. Let us instead ask deeper questions about why we have crime in the first place, and how we can provide people with the resources and opportunities they need to live full lives outside of the criminal justice system.

As you settle your vote, consider that it is not a weakness to be against “tough on crime.”

Katherine Hill is a PhD student at Yale School of Public Health and a member of the Stop Solitary CT steering committee.