Mass Incarcation Era Over?
After decades of maintaining the highest incarceration rates in the developed world, the United States is shifting toward alternative sentencing for all but the most dangerous criminals, Adam Serwer reports.
In the 1980s and 1990s — the “tough on crime” era — -incarceration was touted as the simple solution to our crime problem. Today, the United States imprisons 1 percent of its entire population. Including the number of people on probation and parole, one in 31 Americans is under supervision of the criminal-justice system. Mass incarceration has succeeded in reducing crime, but the strategy has diminishing returns. The offense rate of the top 20 percent of offenders is more than 10 times that of the average prisoner — a few very active criminals commit most of the crime. But under the current system, offenders who could be more cheaply deterred or rehabilitated instead incur the most expensive — and, from the perspective of its effect on the community, damaging — form of punishment possible. This is why, even as the number of incarcerated people has increased exponentially, crime hasn’t decreased at the same rate.
Fueled by the damage mass incarceration has done to state budgets, a new “smart on crime” movement has emerged to seek new ways of reducing the number of people in the system. Many states, including New Jersey, have attempted to do so by reforming probation and parole, in part by using something called “graduated sanctions” — levying small punishments on those who violate the terms of their supervision. Instead of being thrown back in jail, parolees are confined in short-term residential assessment centers — privately run institutions where they are evaluated. The parole board, based on recommendations from the parole officer, then decides the best course of action: revoking parole, placing the offender in a work or treatment program, or putting him on position-monitoring (using the ankle bracelet), which is one of the harsher sanctions in New Jersey.
America is slowly inching away from decades of a draconian approach to criminal justice — one that has resulted in the “land of the free” imprisoning more of its citizens than any another country in the world. In Congress, bills to repeal the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine are gathering momentum. The new head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, Gil Kerlikowske, has abandoned the “drug war” rhetoric. Religious conservatives commiserate with bleeding-heart liberals over what to do about recidivism. In states like New Jersey, officials are thinking of creative ways to curb offending behavior without relying solely on incarceration. Although ideas like graduated sanctions have been around for years, they are now being implemented in earnest as states seek new strategies for deterring crime rather than simply punishing it.
“We have the emergence of a very pragmatic, non-ideological crime-policy conversation that is allowing us to set aside philosophical differences to reduce crime and prisons,” says Jeremy Travis, president of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “This is the great breakthrough of the last decade.”
There’s much more in the piece, which I recommend in full.
Alternative sentencing makes sense in the case of most nonviolent and low level offenders, since incarceration is not only incredibly expensive but can reinforce criminal behavior and ensures that the offender can’t provide for his family, creating spillover effects into the community. It would also be useful to revisit much of our criminal law, notably drug and other vice law, to decriminalize conduct that doesn’t cause direct harm to others.
via Annie Lowrey
UPDATE: Ross Douthat writes about this issue in his NYT column. He argues that mass incarceration made sense as a reaction to the overindulgent 1960s and 1970s, it’s time has passed.
Yet the costs of this success have been significant: 2.3 million Americans are behind bars. Our prison system tolerates gross abuses, including rape on a disgraceful scale. Poor communities are warped by the absence of so many fathers and brothers. And every American community is burdened by the expense of building and staffing enough prisons to keep up with our swelling convict population.
Mass incarceration was a successful public-policy tourniquet. But now that we’ve stopped the bleeding, it can’t be a permanent solution.
This doesn’t require a return to the liberal excuse-making of the ’60s and ’70s. Nor does it require every governor to issue frequent pardons. (A capricious mercy doesn’t further the cause of justice.)
Instead, it requires a more sophisticated crime-fighting approach — an emphasis, for instance, on making sentences swifter and more certain, even as we make them shorter; a system of performance metrics for prisons and their administrators; a more stringent approach to probation and parole. (“When Brute Force Fails,” by the U.C.L.A. law professor Mark Kleiman, is the best handbook for would-be reformers.)
Above all, it requires conservatives to take ownership of prison reform, and correct the system they helped build. The Democrats still lack credibility on crime policy. Any successful reform requires the support of the law-and-order party.
This is an issue where the politics will trail the facts considerably, however.