Although the timeline for U.S. prison reform is still in the early stages, the city of Houston has taken an exemplary step in the right direction by sentencing women convicted of prostitution to rehab instead of jail.
There are multiple reasons why we need prison reform: lack of effective prisoner re-entry into society, the increase in overcrowding, largely due to excessive sentencing for misdemeanors, which then leads to money spent on building expansion instead of programs that prevent crime, and so on.
However, Houston has restored faith in reform with a taxpayer-funded program called We've Been There Done That, which aims to reform convicted prostitutes, considering a majority of them have been victims of sexual assault, abuse, and addiction.
Kathryn Griffin Grinan, a former prostitute and recovering drug addict, created the program after coming clean 10 years ago through Houston's drug court. Although her stint was successful, she took her experiences and formed her own group to meet the specific needs of women like her with hopes of doing more than just ending prostitution.
District Court Judge Maria T. Jackson explained that while these women are being convicted for crimes like drug possession and theft, the "underlying issues," such as abuse, are not being effectively dealt with by the courts. So far, Jackson has sentenced 20 women to the program and continues to work closely with Grinan.
Grinan's program is a step in the right direction because it demonstrates how our penal system needs to look beyond the crime and into the motive if we ever want to productively prevent crime. Additionally, a program like We've Been There Done That reasonably uses our tax dollars to properly punish inmates as well as get to the root of their issues, which range from all types of abuse. With rehab programs, the chances of arrestees resorting back to crime decline, which lessens the amount of taxpayer money on prisons.
Additionally, We've Been There Done That represents an evolution in the way we determine punishment. Perhaps if people convicted of drug offenses were only sentenced to rehab instead of jail, we would see a drop in drug abuse as well as an even larger drop in government spending on prison.
While Houston has made great strides in forward thinking, Texas itself has been a leader in prison reform for a few years now. Instead of spending money on building more prisons, the state decided to move nonviolent offenders out of prison and into alternatives led by tighter probation and treatment in 2007. As a result, Texas was able to thwart a $2 billion spending increase and see a serious decrease in crime and parole failures.
The rest of the 49 states should take note.