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July 11, 2017

"It’s time to refocus the punishment paradigm"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new commentary in The Hill authored by Adam Gelb and Barbara Broderick. Here are excerpts:

[O]ne of the most powerful findings in criminology is that rewards are better shapers of behavior than punishments. But that’s not typically how it works for the 4.7 million Americans on probation or parole, the community supervision programs founded for the purpose of redirecting troubled lives.

Instead, supervision has become mostly about enforcing the rules — report to your probation officer, attend treatment, etc. — and locking people up when they don’t obey.  Corrections professionals call it “Trail ’em, nail ’em, and jail ’em.”

People who commit crimes need to be held accountable for their actions, of course, but the criminal justice system serves a much wider purpose: protecting public safety.  In order to cut crime and recidivism rates — and rein in corrections spending — we need to harness what the research says about changing behavior.  That means refocusing the punishment model and making the primary mission of supervision to promote success, not just punish failure.

This fundamental transformation is one of a set of proposed paradigm shifts in community corrections highlighted in a report set to be released later this month from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and the National Institute of Justice — the product of three years of discussions among leading experts in criminal justice, of which we were a part.

Our group sought to identify strategies for probation, parole, and other programs that can both promote public safety and build trust between communities and justice institutions.  Other shifts include moving from mass to targeted supervision, concentrating resources on more serious offenders, and swapping intuition-based policies for evidence-based practices (such as focusing treatment on changing characteristics that contribute to offending, like poor impulse control, and avoiding those that don’t.)

Making supervision more reward-based holds great potential.  A probation officer’s job has traditionally been defined as reactive: wait until something bad happens and then impose a sanction, often a return to prison. This not only costs state taxpayers an average of $30,000 per year for each inmate, it also ignores a good part of what we know works best when it comes to steering ex-offenders away from continued criminality....

Drug courts have helped pioneer reward-based practices by holding graduation ceremonies to commemorate program completion.  Many graduates say it’s the first time in their lives that they’ve achieved something and been publicly acknowledged for it, and studies suggest that this type of recognition inspires them to persist in their sobriety.

Such ceremonies shouldn’t be limited to specialized courts or programs, which handle only a small fraction of the millions of people on community supervision.  They should be expanded and accompanied by other rewards for progress along the way.  Local communities and businesses can chip in with small gift cards and other tokens of recognition.

At least 15 states have passed laws that establish “earned compliance credits,” which typically permit offenders to earn a month off of their supervision terms for each month that they’re in compliance.  This tactic could be expanded and used in new ways.  For instance, for each month they obey the rules, parolees or probationers could have a reduction or elimination of the monthly fee (typically about $50) that they’re required to pay.

Another potentially promising method would capture the power of social media to push positive messages to probationers and parolees when they do well.  Pass a drug test, complete a phase of treatment, or get a job — and you’d receive a batch of digital pats on the back from your treatment team and circle of family and friends.

It’s human instinct to punish wrongdoing, and accountability won’t — and shouldn’t — vanish from the criminal justice system.  We can’t just reward people when they do right but fail to respond when they do wrong. But by shifting the emphasis from retribution to rewards, we can make a greater impact on behavior.

July 11, 2017 at 06:34 PM | Permalink


How do you beat the rewards of crime? For $5, you may smoke crack, and experience the gratification, and self confidence Prof. Berman experienced upon graduating from Harvard Law School. Skip the 80 hours a week of studying for 20 years. I am assuming Prof. Berman began this course of studying in kindergarten.

There are very few ugly female addicts, if anyone has noticed. So, be an ugly skank and have sex with beautiful women in exchange for illegal drugs. These are cheaper than bringing flowers and a box of chocolates.

The average IQ in prison is 85. On the outside earn a great living working a few hours a night at light labor, at a rate of $300 an hour.

Father 9 children, and the lawyer run state government will pay for the upbringing
of the fatherless bastards.

Have virtual immunity. Commit thousands of crimes before ever getting inconvenienced by the lawyer run criminal justice system.

There is a downside. If you snitch, or do not pay your bill, you get tortured and whacked by people with a much better understanding of effective criminal justice than the lawyer. There are contagious diseases spread by bodily fluids. You have to deal with a rough crowd with bad manners, unless they want something. Then they are smooth as silk. If one annoys you too much, cap their ass holding a Nine sideways.

Posted by: David Behar | Jul 11, 2017 11:30:03 PM

How come only really stupid commentary gets published in these left wing hate speech propaganda outlets?

Posted by: David Behar | Jul 11, 2017 11:39:29 PM

David, you must have had a tragic upbringing if you never experienced rewards to help shape your behavior and cannot see the value of that in later life too for all. It actually is pervasive in life generally, for most eg. a bonus for good work, a rise for taking on more responsibility, a kiss for bringing home flowers :). You should try it sometime. It makes you feel good about yourself - whether giving or receiving. Enduring criminalization for the sake of it does nothing to solve or alleviate crime, and certainly doesn't help victims. A good and hopefully thought-provoking article.

Posted by: peter | Jul 12, 2017 4:35:30 AM

The author talks about a pair of dimes but does not spull it right.

Posted by: Liberty1st | Jul 12, 2017 5:18:15 PM

Peter. I gave you facts. You returned personal insults. Not only are your remarks ad hominem, they are psychic ad hominem.

I request that you tell the class the fraction of your income or that of your employer from government.

Posted by: David Behar | Jul 12, 2017 11:12:11 PM

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