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Monday, January 27, 2014

Criminal Justice Reform and Alternatives to Harsh Punishment

Today's New York Times contains an editorial by Bill Keller entitled "America on Probation."  Keller notes that high incarceration rates have prompted reform efforts by states and policymakers across the political spectrum. His column begins:

In recent years Americans have begun to wise up to the idea that our overstuffed prisons are a shameful waste of lives and money. Lawmakers have recoiled from the high price of mass incarceration (the annual per-inmate cost of prison approaches the tuition at a good college) and some have recognized that our prisons feed a pathological cycle of poverty, community dysfunction, crime and hopelessness. As crime rates have dropped, the public has registered support for reforms that would have fewer nonviolent offenders languishing in prison. For three years in a row, the population of America’s prisons has inched down; 13 states closed prisons last year. Efforts to fix the perpetual misery machine that is our criminal justice system have won support not only from progressives and academics but from conservatives (both fiscal and evangelical), from enlightened law enforcement groups, from business and even from advocates for crime victims. 

This emerging consensus is good news, since our prisons are an international scandal, and we can only hope the new attitude doesn’t evaporate with the next Willie Horton-style rampage or spike in the crime rate. But it raises an important question: What is the alternative? How do we punish and deter criminals, protect the public and — the thing prisons do most abysmally — improve the chances that those caught up in the criminal justice system emerge with some hope of productive lives?
Keller goes on to describe various reforms that serve to fulfill the criminal justice system's goals of punishment, deterrence, and rehabilitation, summarizing efforts at sentencing reform, supervision of probationers and parolees, diversion programs, re-entry programs, and policing reforms. Keller succinctly describes each of these reforms and provides examples of their adoption. This column is an excellent starting point for those who are interested in learning more about strategies to combat mass incarceration.

And for those interested in exploring these issues more, I thought that this would be a good opportunity for me to mention several resources I have found particularly helpful and interesting when it comes to learning more about criminal justice reform.

  • People interested in sentencing reform should pay particular attention to two blogs: Sentencing Law and Policy and Right on Crime. Sentencing Law and Policy is notable for its wide range of content and frequent and consistent posting on current developments in the law. Right on Crime gives an interesting perspective on the conservative case for criminal justice reform -- a position that tends to be under-emphasized in liberal discussions of reform.
  • While I have not done very much research of my own into issues of probation and parole, I came across this forthcoming article a while ago. The authors are Tonja Jacobi, L. Song Richardson, and Gregory Barr, and the title of the article is "The Attrition of Rights Under Parole." The article notes that parolees are generally exempt from many Fourth Amendment protections -- for example, officers can generally conduct suspicionless searches of parolees as a condition of parolees' release. Jacobi et al. note that police tend to engage in heightened enforcement activities in neighborhoods with more parolees, which leads to heightened recidivism as well as disproportionate enforcement efforts that affect non-parolees who happen to live or work in neighborhoods with numerous parolees.
  • I was happy to see Keller mention re-entry as one dimension of sentencing reform. Since my first year of law school, I have volunteered at a reentry clinic run by A New Way of Life. A description of the clinic is available here. From my experiences with this clinic, I have come to the opinion that efficient and accessible expungement of convictions is crucial: it helps those who have been convicted of crimes find gainful employment, which in turn alleviates the financial stress and despair that tends to lead to further criminal activity.

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