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June 20, 2012

"Can America Reduce its Prison Population?"

The title of this post is the headline of this effective new piece by Ted Gest at The Crime Report, which is itself a report on an effective new speech by Joan Petersilia.  Here are highlights:

The current trend of prison downsizing in the United States may not succeed unless experts can advise policy makers promptly about which non-prison programs for convicts change offender behavior, says criminologist Joan Petersilia of Stanford Law School.

In a keynote address to the National Institute of Justice's annual conference Tuesday in Arlington VA, Petersilia warned that it is not inevitable that the current movement among states to reduce prison populations and close penal institutions will continue. "We have been here before," Petersilia said.

She recalled that many states adopted intensive probation supervision in the 1980s and 1990s as an alternative to prison, but research results on its effectiveness were disappointing. "We've got to stop overselling community corrections -- and under-delivering," Petersilia said.

She worries that, as in previous decades, prison population totals will moderate or recede in the short run in large part as a way to save government money -- but when the economy improves, political leaders will start filling prisons again when they have no proof that non-prison programs worked.

The test case for prison reform is Petersilia's home state of California, where the evolving prisoner "realignment" plan is the "biggest criminal justice experiment ever conducted in America," Petersilia says.

Even many Californians are not aware that in the last 18 months, the state's prison population has dropped from 172,000 to 135,000, and the number of parolees has plummeted even more sharply, from 132,000 to 60,000.

While this sounds promising to corrections reformers, Petersilia says it is happening so fast that officials and offenders alike are just beginning to understand the impact.  Many former inmates complain that they have been taken off the parole rolls so quickly that they are losing government benefits that are reserved for parolees.  Some are being asked to get back on parole as a result, she says.

In addition, many prosecutors and law enforcement officials oppose aspects of realignment, contending that it will lead to rising crime rates.  One big problem is that government agencies are not pouring sufficient funding into ex-inmate rehabilitation.

Petersilia's Stanford Criminal Justice Center, which is receiving a federal grant to evaluate the California prisoner realignment program of Gov. Jerry Brown, is building a database of how the state's 58 counties are spending the $2 billion they are getting from the state to perform corrections-sytem functions that the state formerly did.  So far, only 10 percent of that money is going to treatment programs, with the bulk going to sheriff's office, local jails, probations staff, and court services.  That bodes ill for keeping ex-inmates from returning to crime, Petersilia says....

Petersilia believes that the public will back expenditures of public funds on projects that truly help former prisoners get their lives back together.  She has some hope for "social impact bonds," also known as "pay for success," which are contracts with government agencies in which entrepreneurs invest in projects that produce improved social outcomes and save public money.  Initial interest in the concept has been seen in the juvenile justice area, Petersilia says.

If these and other non-prison alternatives can't be proved to work, she said, the "incredibly huge" constituencies for the status quo, including labor unions for prison employees and rural communities that depend on income from prisons, will prevail.

June 20, 2012 at 04:53 PM | Permalink


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I think it's better if they have a category of inmates. Categorize them to what they think that will not do anything good(I don't know how to do this), And those that can do something good. So that the reducing stage of prisoners are well deserved.

Posted by: Macky Anderson | Jun 20, 2012 7:36:11 PM

Re-alignment is a scam upon the taxpayers of California. Sending state prisoners to already overcrowded jails did comply with the terms of the Plata Coleman case, but it exacerbated bad conditions in the jails. Brown was playing a game of musical chairs and evading compliance with the Supreme Court order to release inmates. After all, the human bondage industry is the largest in California and fuels the legislature. Brown promised during his campaign to fix the determinate sentencing laws that are a primary reason for the prison crisis today, laws which he convinced the public to pass when he was governor before, but he has not delivered. What he did do was to give the prison guards and CCPOA raises worth hundreds of millions of dollars when he signed SB 151 shortly after taking office, which is why they donated $2 million to his campaign. Don't forget all the prisoners that have been shipped out of state, those are still part of the tax burden since we are still paying these expenses. There is little compliance with laws passed to release frail elderly and terminally ill prisoners to family or nursing homes because the profits are just too darned good.

Posted by: B Cayenne Bird | Jun 20, 2012 7:59:41 PM

P.S. Professor Berman. Anyone receiving funding from the State can't be relied upon to describe the entire situation plainly. Re-alignment is smoke and mirrors in order to preserve the jobs of members of law enforcement labor unions, the people who run California thanks to the apathy of ordinary citizens. I appreciate your writing on this topic, please give my regards to Elaine.

Posted by: B Cayenne Bird | Jun 20, 2012 8:05:28 PM

all i can say is NO shit! crime will go up. Which of course is what the prison industry wants. They know very well that american treats it's ex-cons like bastard stepchildren of the 1800s. With no possible future and no way to earn a living what choice do they have BUT crime!

Thanks to the internet and the never ending history you can not evade or outlive there is no way to put the PAST into the PAST where it belongs!

So why bother to even try?

Posted by: rodsmith | Jun 21, 2012 1:09:14 AM

The laws needs to change if the population of imprison is reduce. The strict punishment can be decided for some cases.

Posted by: Corporate Law enterpreneur | Jun 22, 2012 7:46:11 AM

Without access to media, Keith Higgins (a CA state CDCR inmate) just wrote the following to me:
California seems to be locked into the "back to the future" paradigm in the CDCR's grand "Blueprint for Change." I suspect successful corrections paradigms of the 1960's and 1970's are next to useless in our present decade largely because of the CA political culture, failed public education system, public distrust of state government agencies and officials and the influence of special interest and labor organizations is so pervasive. Presuming the reason persons are in prison is because they were unable to function as law-abiding citizens in the community for various reasons, perhaps it should be presumed REHABILITATE (verb) means to 're-tool' individuals to successfully live here. We need different skills than the 60s and 70s. We see people return here to prison all the time because there is no place for them in the community except jail or the morgue. Education is not the passport to middle class any more. Knowing information today is not nearly as important as knowing how to access information you need. What I can produce or contribute to my neighborhood in tangible terms seems terribly important. If I can produce nothing, how have I been rehabilitated? The essentials are adequate water, clean air, distribution of food, adequate energy and a social safety net. If a part of my prison sentence could be spent working on WPA style projects to address the above, that would be rehabilitation.

Posted by: Keith Higgins | Jun 22, 2012 3:38:00 PM

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