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September 14, 2011

"The Early Release Revolution: Early Assessments and State-Level Strategies"

The title of this post is the title of this timely new piece by Jesse Norris which is available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Reacting to widespread budget crises, many states are experimenting with early release legislation to help cut correctional costs.  This early release revolution is a stark reversal of earlier trends toward determinate sentencing.  Implementing early release policies appropriately could help bring about a new sentencing era characterizing by lower rates of incarceration and higher levels of public safety.  However, early release is potentially vulnerable to abuse and prone to backlash, and must be planned and implemented carefully to avoid endangering the public, fostering injustice, or failing to realize hoped-for budgetary savings.

This Article outlines a set of principles for making early release successful, using Wisconsin as a case study because of its unusually large number of early release mechanisms.  After evaluating Wisconsin’s recent early release legislation, this Article presents four principles for an effective early release system.  Specifically, state policymakers dealing with early release legislation should a) prevent injustice by monitoring for bias and requiring structured, recorded decision-making; b) provide for effective implementation through strategic governance; c) ensure early release is compatible with public safety; and d) complement early release with other measures designed to decrease incarceration.

The Article also uses preliminary data to respond to recent work on early release and sentence modification.  First, in response to arguments for the superiority of judicial rather than administrative sentence modification, the Article provides evidence that judicial sentence modification mechanisms may widen racial disparities.  Second, addressing the charge that risk assessment-aided early release will exacerbate racial disparities, I show that this has not occurred so far in Wisconsin.  Finally, contesting the claim that early release has no role to play in reducing prison populations, I show that a non-trivial proportion (12%) of the recent drop in the Wisconsin prison population was due to recent early release reforms.  While this shows that early release does have some role to play in reducing prison populations, the relatively low proportion reinforces the Article’s argument for supplementing early release with other incarceration-lowering policies.

September 14, 2011 at 03:02 PM | Permalink

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