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June 28, 2013

Effective discussion of "Responsible Prison Reform" at National Affairs

Eli Lehrer has this lengthy new piece in the latest issue of National Affairs, which is headlined "Responsible Prison Reform." As these excerpts from the start, middle and end of the lengthy essay suggest, the piece merits reading in full:

The evidence shows that this mass incarceration has performed more or less as advertised. By any measure, nearly every neighborhood, city, and state in the United States has become safer over the past two decades.  Crime rates in many categories are at less than half of their all-time highs.  But the costs of incarceration — both financial and societal — are also becoming increasingly clear.  The policies that were appropriate for a nation that had one of the highest crime rates among developed Western countries are not necessarily appropriate for a nation that now has one of the lowest.

Just as conservatives once led the way toward the tougher sentencing rules and other policies that increased imprisonment rates, they should lead the way in sensibly shrinking the prison population.  Reform of America's correctional system does not require abandoning a single conservative principle or returning to disproven and, frankly, disastrous policies that blamed society as a whole for crime and resulted in too few people held accountable for their misdeeds.  In fact, somewhat paradoxically, an increased emphasis on individual responsibility — which earlier prompted the move toward mass incarceration — also holds promise for a new conservative agenda for prison reform. Combined with a renewed emphasis on effective punishment, increased attention to circumstances within jailhouse walls, and a different social attitude toward ex-offenders, these sound, time-tested principles can shape the new vision for prison reform that America urgently needs....

Effective though mass incarceration is, however, the strategy is not without its costs. These costs can be measured in fiscal terms, in the failure of imprisonment to prevent certain repeat behavior, in the impact of incarceration on certain communities, and in the tension between high incarceration rates and democratic values.

The financial costs of large-scale incarceration are immense.  Housing an inmate for a year costs anywhere from $10,000 for a low-security inmate in a state where corrections officers are paid modestly to more than $100,000 for maximum-security inmates in states with high prison-guard salaries.  Nationwide, the Bureau of Justice Statistics estimated total spending on prisons and jails in 2010 to be nearly $50 billion, or nearly $500 a year for every American household.

But these costs represent only the tip of the iceberg.  Removing 2 million people from the labor force causes dislocations of all sorts.  People in prison and jail have a difficult time maintaining personal relationships.  This contributes to large numbers of children growing up in single-parent homes, or without any parents at all — which, in turn, correlates strongly with more of those children turning to crime.

The policy of large-scale incarceration has also failed to demonstrate lasting success in the area of rehabilitation.  Although recidivism has declined slightly in recent years, thanks in part to new re-entry programs, most studies show that about 40% of people who are released from prison will be re-arrested within three years.  Despite concerted efforts and millions of dollars in public spending, recidivism rates barely declined during the 2000s. Since vastly more people are serving time behind bars, this pattern of high recidivism suggests that prisons are fostering even more criminality....

Without casting aside the ethos of individual responsibility that has led to so many Americans being locked up — and without undertaking a wholesale revision of the nation's laws — the United States can and should reduce its prison population and make conditions more humane for those who serve time behind bars.  Such reforms, implemented wisely and cautiously, can mitigate the tremendous negative consequences of the explosion in the number of Americans in prison.  The United States can remain safe and, simultaneously, undo much of the social damage that results from large-scale incarceration.

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June 28, 2013 at 10:48 AM | Permalink

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