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July 21, 2014

"Liberal but Not Stupid: Meeting the Promise of Downsizing Prisons"

The title of this post is the title of this important and timely new paper authored by two terrific criminologists, Professors Joan Petersilia and Francis T. Cullen, and now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

A confluence of factors — a perfect storm — interfered with the intractable rise of imprisonment and contributed to the emergence of a new sensibility defining continued mass imprisonment as non-sustainable. In this context, reducing America’s prisons has materialized as a viable possibility.  For progressives who have long called for restraint in the use of incarceration, the challenge is whether the promise of downsizing can be met.

The failure of past reforms aimed at decarceration stand as a sobering reminder that good intentions do not easily translate into good results.  Further, a number of other reasons exist for why meaningful downsizing might well fail (e.g., the enormous scale of imprisonment that must be confronted, limited mechanisms available to release inmates, lack of quality alternative programs).  Still, reasons also exist for optimism, the most important of which is the waning legitimacy of the paradigm of mass incarceration, which has produced efforts to lower inmate populations and close institutions in various states.

The issue of downsizing will also remain at the forefront of correctional discourse because of the court-ordered reduction in imprisonment in California. This experiment is ongoing, but is revealing the difficulty of downsizing; the initiative appears to be producing mixed results (e.g., reductions in the state’s prison population but increased in local jail populations). In the end, successful downsizing must be “liberal but not stupid.”  Thus, reform efforts must be guided not only by progressive values but also by a clear reliance on scientific knowledge about corrections and on a willingness to address the pragmatic issues that can thwart good intentions.  Ultimately, a “criminology of downsizing” must be developed to foster effective policy interventions.

July 21, 2014 at 10:00 AM | Permalink


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Translation: We need lots of grants to tell the gubmit how to downsize our prisons.

Posted by: MM | Jul 21, 2014 10:14:34 AM

I suggest blood lead levels be added to any discussion of risk.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Jul 21, 2014 1:28:28 PM

Prisons are just places where correction programs are administered; programs of many different kinds. A level of deprivation is just one aspect of a correction program. For example, an offender may be housed in a single cell for a set number of hours each day and supervised outside that cell within a perimeter fence for the remainder of the day. Or an offender may be housed in a dormitory for a certain number of hours each day and spend the rest of the day on a work project outside of any physical restraint. And so on. In both cases the offender is technically in prison.

The focus should be on programs, not places. A plan should be made with respect to each offender, one aspect of which is a level of restraint, which may be graduated depending on the state's correctional objectives. In other words we need to be smarter about sentencing.

Posted by: Tom McGee | Jul 21, 2014 8:16:06 PM

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