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June 17, 2018

"What Tocqueville Would Think of Today’s Criminal Justice Reforms"

The title of this post is the headline of this interesting commentary authored by Emily Ferkaluk which leans on a historic figure while advocating for the FIRST STEP Act.  Here are excerpts:

Alexis de Tocqueville, a French aristocrat who toured American penitentiaries at the height of the 19th-century penal debate in order to help guide French penal reform, would commend us for the reform measures contained in the First Step Act.

In his report, “On the Penitentiary System in the United States and Its Application to France,” Tocqueville stressed that any criminal justice reform must moderately balance two goals: preserving the rights of society, and preserving the rights of prisoners.  Society, he argued, has a right to promote and protect public safety and order by punishing those who break the law—and to regain at least some of the money it spends in doing so.  On the other hand, the prisoner has a right to an education that prepares him to re-enter society as a productive citizen.

Both rights are preserved through the right application of corrective justice — a balance of proportional retribution and rehabilitation.  The First Step Act protects both of these rights—the rights of society and of the prisoner — by proposing a recidivism program that conducts risk assessments of prisoners.  These assessments would weigh the likelihood of individual prisoners recommitting a crime....

Furthermore, time credit programs that are joined to a risk assessment system work because they let wardens and prison administrators determine whether a prisoner presents a low risk to the community.  Tocqueville would have approved of this kind of localized authority.  In fact, during his visit to America, he was pleasantly surprised at the amount of authority the superintendent of prisons wielded over prison discipline.  He believed superintendents were best suited to make those decisions, being the closest to prisoners and having observed their behavior and reformation.

Tocqueville also identified certain types of incentives that truly rehabilitate prisoners — particularly family-oriented incentives. His interviews with prisoners in solitary confinement in the Philadelphia Penitentiary led him to remark that “memories of their family have an extreme power over their souls,” thus disposing them to rehabilitation.

These very incentives are present in the First Step Act. One incentive is to be relocated to a facility closer to home. Another is to enroll prisoners in a program that gives them “family relationship building, structured parent-child interaction, and parenting skills.”  A third option is to allow certain prisoners to go home for pre-release custody.  All of these cohere with Tocqueville’s findings....

When Tocqueville was first inspecting American penitentiaries, only a handful of states (predominantly New York and Pennsylvania) had begun to implement new prison disciplines such as solitary confinement and prison labor.  These penal disciplines proved effective, and despite their relative newness, Tocqueville recommended the French adopt the same disciplines.

Tocqueville preferred democratic politics to theory, and action in one direction over endless debate.  Commenting on the penal reforms made by the people through their state legislatures, he said, “Perhaps this prudent and reserved reform, effected by an entire people, whose entire habits are practical, will be better than the hasty trials that would result from the enthusiasm of ardent minds and the seduction of theories.”

Tocqueville’s words of wisdom should encourage us to pass the proposed recidivism reform measures without fear of killing any future criminal justice reform.  This first step toward penal reform is not our last.

Some of many prior related posts:

June 17, 2018 at 11:04 AM | Permalink

Comments

America was and remains land rich. It over values people needed to populate a lot of empty space. This is a theory of the softness of the US on criminals.

This attitude requires some balance with the suffering of victims from vicious, violent predators. These are protected, privileged, and empowered by the biggest criminal enterprise of all, the lawyer profession.

Posted by: David Behar | Jun 17, 2018 1:35:18 PM

What troubles me about this article is that the report to the King of France was coauthored by
Gustave de Beaumont and Alexis de Tocqueville and de Beaumont is not mentioned. I wonder if the author read the report.

Posted by: John Neff | Jun 17, 2018 4:03:57 PM

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