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December 22, 2008

Why we need a re-entry czar and a task force on the prison economy

Now that the Obama transition team has filled the cabinet and is busy creating new task forces to deal with modern new concerns, it is time for those concerned about modern criminal justice problems to step up pitches for the incoming Obama administration as to how to improve modern criminal justice systems.  I have already done a some of this pitching thanks to the kind editors of the Harvard Law & Policy Review who helped me publish this piece, titled, "Reorienting Progressive Perspectives for Twenty-First Century Punishment Realities."  But I have a lot more ideas, particularly concerning czars and task forces that the new administration should create.

Specifically, in light of the urgent importance of re-entry programming with 700,000 persons getting released from prison every year, we need a national re-entry czar who can help state and localities with re-entry programming.  The passage of the federal Second Chance Act last year (which Senators Biden, McCain and Obama all supported) highlights the congressional interest in re-entry efforts.  But the Second Chance Act has not yet been adequately funded and national coordination of effective re-entry programs could and should greatly improve the reintegration of ex-offenders into communities.

In addition, in light of the extraordinary budget pressures states are feeling and the high costs of mass incarceration, we need a national task force on the prison economy.  Senator Jim Webb has already held two important hearings through Congress's Joint Economic Conference to highlight the inefficiencies and ineffectiveness of mass incarceration, especially as the war on drugs continues to fill our prisons without seeming to do much to diminsh illegal drug use.  Senator Webb could and should head a prison economy task force, which could and should include attorneys general and governors in states being forced to consider prison releases to deal with budget deficits.

I am sure readers have other ideas for the incoming Obama administration as to how to improve modern criminal justice systems, and I hope everyone will use the comments to express these ideas (or to critique my ideas).

Some recent related posts:

December 22, 2008 at 11:01 AM | Permalink


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When I hear the phrase, "war on drugs
which is filling our prisons," I wonder
how many people distinguish between the
following class of criminals:

1) Drugs users charged with and convicted
of posssession crimes who are at some
point sent to prison; and

2) Drug dealers, drug mules, or drug
users who resort to home-invasion
burglary, robbery, commerical burglary,
and identity theft to support their
habits. These same people then commit
crimes like assualt, DUI, vehicular manslaughter,
rape, child molest, and murder incident to their high.

Now I'm all for sentencing reform on group # 1,
but I feel the general public at large
believes the fiction that our prisons
are bursting at the seams with group # 1 rather than group # 2.

Posted by: Large County Prosecutor | Dec 22, 2008 2:03:48 PM

Good concerns, LCP, though I wonder if anyone has effectively tracked exactly how many persons are serving prison terms in each group. Moreover, to the extent that the types of crimes committed in group #2 would be less refrequent if we changed our drug-use-abuse philosophy, it remains accurate to complain about the way in which the drug war is "creating" criminals.

The analogy to alcohol seems fitting here. Few have sympathy for those who are drunk when they kill or steal. But, to my knowledge, there is relatively little killing or stealing involved in beer/wine dealing (and we ended Prohibition because it was clear we were creating killing and stealing through the "war on alcohol").

Posted by: Douglas A. Berman | Dec 22, 2008 2:36:56 PM

Unless you have access to the pre-sentence investigation it is very difficult to assign a person convicted on a drug charge to group 1 or 2. With plea bargaining the original and convicted charge can differ trafficking can morph into possession for example.

My view is that if a person is in prison on a drug possession charge there is more to the story than meets the eye.

I know people that think prisons are full of people that were arrested for possession of less than an ounce of marijuana. When you tell them that most folks in that predicament are normally fined and the worst case outcome is a week in jail they refuse to believe it. What I do now is ask them how many people they know smoke pot have ever been in prison? That seems to work better.

Posted by: John Neff | Dec 22, 2008 4:12:23 PM

John, Doug's thesis is that because society has chosen to eradicate (or attempt to eradicate) hard drugs like coke etc. that society is responsible for the criminal behavior that attends the ability to get said hard drugs.

Posted by: federalist | Dec 22, 2008 6:04:36 PM

Here is a conclusion of a somewhat related study:

Our analysis of pre-adjudicated inmates has shown that almost no one housed in the Los Angeles jails could be considered non-serious or simply troublesome to their local communities. Rather, we found the Los Angeles jails occupied almost entirely with offenders who have a current felony offense combined with an extensive criminal record.

Petersilia, Turner, & Fain, Profiling Inmates in the Los Angeles County Jails: Risks, Recidivism, and Release Options (RAND 2001).

Of course, preconviction inmates in county jail are not necessarily the same ones who go to state prison after conviction, but the two groups are strongly related.

Posted by: Kent Scheidegger | Dec 22, 2008 6:06:46 PM

Kent, you mean that the LA County Jail isn't populated with Paris Hiltons? Say it isn't so.

Posted by: federalist | Dec 22, 2008 6:15:51 PM

Coke and heroin dealers are criminals first and foremost. If they could not sustain themselves peddling drugs, they would be on to selling firearms, stolen property, and myriad other contraband.

Posted by: mjs | Dec 22, 2008 8:18:38 PM

I know you like to create straw men to attack, federalist, but you are being especially sloopy and silly when you assert that my thesis is that "society is responsible for the criminal behavior attends the ability to get said hard drugs." I do not generally seek to ascribe sole or even partial "responsibility" for individual behavior to "society."

What I try to do is notice and comment upon what behaviors we deem criminal in modern society; I also seek to assess the costs/benefits of these societal choices. I find it very notable that 75 years ago we concluded that the costs of alcohol prohibition exceeding the benefits; I wish more people would seek to assess whether the same conclusion might attend certain other drug prohibitions.

May I suggest that your eagerness to read more into this post --- and my expressed concern for the "inefficiencies and ineffectiveness of mass incarceration, especially as the war on drugs continues to fill our prisons without seeming to do much to diminsh illegal drug use" --- shows your inherent biases a lot more than mine.

Posted by: Douglas A. Berman | Dec 23, 2008 2:19:19 AM

If they had only gotten into Wharton, maybe they'd be hedge fund managers :)

Posted by: Observer | Dec 23, 2008 11:29:20 AM

Prof. Berman, let's recap what you have said:

First, you talk in terms of governmental policies "creating criminals" in LCP's category #2 of criminals. That's the language of diffusing responsibility and minimizing the responsibility of the criminal actor. You also say, "But, to my knowledge, there is relatively little killing or stealing involved in beer/wine dealing (and we ended Prohibition because it was clear we were creating killing and stealing through the 'war on alcohol'"). Once again, the language of the fault lying within ourselves.

Now, perhaps, you can wriggle out of this by saying that you are ignoring the responsibility of the criminal actor and only talking about general societal causes. But I can put two and two together. In a previous post, your condescension towards Gov. Easley who, appalled by well over 500 deaths (that we know about) being caused by those under supervision of the state, made it clear that obviously something was very wrong with how NC supervised parolees, was apparent. And you wrote about how he just wanted to put more people in cages. So what are we supposed to take away from that? The obvious takeaway is that you would consider many of those people in cages victims of that big bad meanie Easley.

From that, it's not hard to get to my earlier post (which, of course, is somewhat tongue in cheek).

I note also that you charge states with the responsibility here. But the "war on drugs" is a federally led war. States simply cannot ignore burglaries, rapes etc. etc. even if you think them caused by the "war on drugs". And certainly, there are many burglars, rapists, and even murderers who get far too little time for their transgressions.

Finally, I cannot let the comparison to alchohol pass without comment. Yes, alcohol is a dangerous drug which causes misery in our society. But most people in our society really don't want a society without alcohol. Beer is here to stay. (Thankfully.) Most people, I suspect, don't want a society where crack cocaine or meth is legally sold. One may find that hypocritical--but I turn that on its head--that we tolerate one dangerous drug (alcohol) doesn't mean that we have to tolerate them all.

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