« "No Drugs, No Executions: The End of the Death Penalty" | Main | "Is Guilt Dispositive? Federal Habeas after Martinez" »

October 28, 2013

NY Times editorial (poorly) urges better assessments of "Why Prisons Are Shrinking"

Today's New York Times has this new editorial headlined "Why Prisons Are Shrinking" making these important points:

The mandatory sentencing movement that swept the United States beginning in the 1970s drove the state prison population up from less than 200,000 to about 1.4 million today and made corrections the second-fastest-growing state expense after Medicaid.  But bipartisan sentencing reforms in a growing number of states are starting to reverse that trend — causing the prison population to decline by about 3.8 percent since 2009.

Underlying the state reforms is a relatively new and more sophisticated way of using data about the offender — including criminal history, drug abuse and instances of antisocial behavior — to assess the likelihood of that individual’s committing a new crime.  And by examining arrest, sentencing and probation data, the states can revise policies that might be driving people back into prison unnecessarily....

Despite the merits of a risk-assessment approach, a report issued earlier this year by the Council of State Governments Justice Center said that many states are still flying blind, because they don’t have the resources to gather data.  Moreover, the study noted, handling high-risk and low-risk offenders in the same way is a big mistake, because “low risk individuals have an increased likelihood of recidivism when they are oversupervised or receive treatment or services in the same programs as medium- and high-risk individuals.”

There are proven ways to move away from discredited, ruinously expensive corrections policies.  More states need to adopt these approaches.

I am fully supportive of the ideas and themes in this editorial, but a lot more could and should be said at this dynamic moment of sentencing and corrections reform. For example, in the wake of the lastest crime data indicating a spike up in national violent and property crimes (discussed here), this editorial should be stressing the need and importance of a careful state-by-state examination of where crime is going up and whether new (and still emerging) data on changes imprisonment rates and crimes rates provide critical new lessons concerning what we can now conclude about the connections between crime and punishment.

In addition, I think this editorial (and other advocacy concerning these critical issues) ought to be urging sustained examination and analysis of a handful of big jurisdictions in which stories of crime and punishment have been especially dynamic over the last few years.  Specifically, I strongly believe that the big states of California, Illinois, New York and Texas, all of which have diverse urban and rural regions and all of which have changes its sentencing laws in diverse ways in recent years, should be a special focal point for sorting through and fairly assessing "proven ways to move away from discredited, ruinously expensive corrections policies."

Last but not least, federal sentencing realities and reform discussions — as well as the interesting "new politics" of criminal justce reform — should be brought into these discussions ASAP.  The federal prison population continues to grow despite the reforms ushered in by the Fair Sentencing Act, and it is now unclear whether or when any additional proposed federal sentencing reforms will get through Congress and if any of these reforms will effectively incorporate "proven ways to move away from discredited, ruinously expensive corrections policies."  More broadly, I think this editorial (and other advocacy concerning these critical issues) should be urging Congress — and especially those eager to support state rights and state-level solutions — to help provide states with the "the resources to gather data" and build on successful reform efforts.  (For example, I have long believe the feds ought to be conducting a kind of "race to the top" federal funding competition to motivate the better development and analysis of state-level crime and punishment data.)

Just a few of many recent related posts:

October 28, 2013 at 10:40 AM | Permalink

TrackBack

TrackBack URL for this entry:
http://www.typepad.com/services/trackback/6a00d83451574769e2019b00645a5c970b

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference NY Times editorial (poorly) urges better assessments of "Why Prisons Are Shrinking":

Comments

Doug --

I think your idea of a federally incentivized race to the top is excellent. My idea of the "top" would be the state that most reduces its crime rate. If that means less imprisonment, fine with me. I doubt that it will, but the point is to make life better for the huge majority by reducing crime.

Are you on board with a race to the top like that? The most federal aid to the states that have the best results in crime reduction?

Posted by: Bill Otis | Oct 28, 2013 11:58:49 AM

Absolutely, especially if we focus particularly on violent crimes. I also think, though, that a cost-effectiveness metric can/should be part of the grading criteria AND serious/violent crime within prison ought also to count, too.

Do you think the GOP could/would get behind such a program? Can/should we get together and try to create a working draft of this idea? Anyone else want to play along?

Posted by: Doug B. | Oct 29, 2013 9:09:48 AM

Post a comment

In the body of your email, please indicate if you are a professor, student, prosecutor, defense attorney, etc. so I can gain a sense of who is reading my blog. Thank you, DAB