Policy Factsheet

Alternatives to Incarceration

Reasons for Policy

Incarceration policies and programs have a disproportionate impact on low-income, racial/ethnic minorities.2

  • Incarceration is expensive and, in many cases, ineffective.2
  • Incarceration alone cannot satisfy the long-term needs of the criminal justice system.2

Community Groups

  • Businesses
  • Community-based Organizations
  • Community Colleges
  • Justice System
  • Law Enforcement
  • Local Alcohol Distributors
  • Local Alcohol Retailers

Policy Components

  • Inclusion of restorative justice policies
  • Community service programs
  • Use of day reporting centers
  • Use of drug courts
  • Use of electronic monitoring
  • Forfeiture programs
  • Home detention programs
  • Intensive supervision probation
  • Substance abuse treatment for offenders
  • Work release programs
  • Tailoring each policy component to the community and the offender

Desired Outcomes

  • Lower rates of recidivism
  • Easier transition into the community for offenders
  • Greater social cohesion
  • Improved outcomes for ex-offenders, including more education and job opportunities
  • Lower crime rates in the community

Level of Evidence Available to Evaluate Effectiveness of Policy

For all policies we describe on this website, we have applied the Standards of Evidence as defined by Flay et al. (2005) in the Standards of Evidence document published by Prevention Science.

The effectiveness level of this policy is 1: Evidence-Based Policies Meeting Criteria for Effectiveness.

The levels of effectiveness as noted are:

  1. meets criteria for policy effectiveness (consistent, positive outcomes from at least two high-quality experimental or quasi-experimental trials using a comparison group or interrupted time series design);
  2. consistent evidence available linking policy with positive outcomes from high-quality observational studies only;
  3. insufficient evidence available for policy or policy components.

Achievable Results

On average, restorative justice programs can achieve:

  • Small improvements in victim satisfaction (Effect Size: 0.19, 95% CI: 0.08-0.30)4
  • Small improvements in offender satisfaction (Effect Size: 0.17)4
  • Moderate improvements in restitution compliance (Effect Size: 0.33)4
  • Small improvements in recidivism (Effect Size: 0.07, 95% CI: 0.02-0.12)4

On average, drug courts can achieve:

  • Reductions in costs related to prison or jail sentences2
  • Reductions in re-arrests of drug offenders2

There is limited evidence available for community service/work crew programs, day reporting centers, electronic monitoring, forfeiture programs, home detention, intensive supervision probation, and work release programs. Initial work suggests these may have positive effects, however more research is needed.

Community Examples

Michigan Department of Corrections reduced its prison population by adopting the Michigan Prisoner Re-Entry Initiative (MPRI)

El Paso, Texas, West Texas Community Supervision and Corrections Department, provides probation and community corrections services which include; residential programs, rehabilitative programs, drug court, and Re-Entry court.

Links to Policy Examples

Michigan House Bill No. 4538 amends MCL, §791.234a (12) placement in special alternative incarceration unit

Texas Statutes, §76.017 Treatment Alternative to Incarceration Program

Be sure to check with your state, county, and municipal governments regarding potential existing laws that may impede any new policy development.

Local governments and organizations may check existing state statutes and administrative codes for the authority to implement local policies.


1Freudenberg, N (2001). Jails, prisons, and the health of urban populations: A review of the impact of the correctional system on community health. Journal of Urban Health: Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine, 78(2), 214-235.

2Patchin JW, & Keveles GN (2004). Alternatives to incarceration: An evidence-based research review: A summary of finding. Northwest Wisconsin Criminal Justice Management Conference, Lakewoods Resort, Cable, Wisconsin.

3Flay, BR, Biglan, A, Boruch, RF, Ganzalez Castro, F, Gottfredson, D, Kellam, S, Moscicki, EK, Schinke, S, Valentine, JC, & Ji, P (2005). Standards of evidence: Criteria for efficacy, effectiveness and dissemination. Prevention Science, 6(3), 151-175.

4Latimer J, Dowden C, & Muise D (2005). The effectiveness of restorative justice practices: A meta-analysis. The Prison Journal, 85(2), 127-144.