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March 28, 2018

"What If Prosecutors Wanted to Keep People Out of Prison?"

The question in the title of this post is the headline of this lengthy New York Magazine article, which is primarily focused on Scott Colom, a 35-year-old district attorney in northeast Mississippi.  But the article also covers how Colom is part of a new focus on prosecutors within efforts to reform criminal justice systems.  Here are excerpts from a long article:

By mid-October, with the [2016] election a few weeks away, Colom knew he was gaining traction. Then a colleague sent him a text message complimenting his new TV commercial. “I was like, What are you talking about?” Television hadn’t fit into his budget. Later in the week, his aunt managed to record the ad on her DVR, and he watched it at her house. A voice at the end said it was paid for by a group called Mississippi Safety & Justice.

He looked it up online and discovered it was a PAC funded by liberal hedge-fund billionaire George Soros, who lives in Westchester County, New York. Bemused, Colom sought advice from consultants in Washington, D.C., who’d been helping him with marketing. They advised Colom to post photos and videos on his website for the PAC to borrow for future ads but warned him not to reach out to the group. Campaign-finance laws forbid direct contact between candidates and independent funders. Colom followed the advice, then went back to knocking on doors....

In the end, Mississippi Safety & Justice had spent $716,000 on the election, dwarfing both the $49,000 Allgood had raised and the $150,000 Colom collected himself. Allgood groused that the money had created an uneven playing field, and Colom himself is defensive about it, even now. But whatever the donation’s impact on the race, it put Colom at the center of a national experiment to remake the criminal-justice system.

For almost three decades, Soros has been quietly funding efforts to end the drug war and reduce the inmate population. Throughout the ’90s and 2000s, he was behind almost every state ballot initiative to legalize marijuana and has given millions in grants for liberal legal scholarship. It was Colom’s luck that in 2015 he’d adopted a new strategy: backing progressives in local elections, specifically DAs, who every day make decisions about whom to charge, with how serious of a crime; whether to engage in plea negotiations; how much prison time, if any, to recommend. In other words, unlike legislators, government lawyers have the power to push down incarceration rates with the stroke of a pen, or a word to a judge. Colom was one of his first test cases....

By the end of his first year in office, Colom had doubled, to 218, the number of defendants in the alternative sentencing program, where if you stay clean and get a job or go to school your charges will eventually be cleared. The scope of the program’s services has expanded too; the administrator, a former social worker, helps participants get into rehab, GED programs, and vocational training, and even arranges rides when necessary, since the area has no bus system.

While alternative sentencing isn’t revolutionary — there are similar programs across the country — it’s a scale model of what Colom has in mind when he dreams of a system built on different incentives. “What we’ve got to do is deal with the addiction that causes people to use drugs,” he says, musing that maybe prisons should be scored on how effectively they rehabilitate people, the way public schools are scored on student achievement. More immediately, Colom is strategizing with Tucker Carrington, a law professor who runs the University of Mississippi’s innocence project, to establish a conviction-review unit, as DAs in Brooklyn, Chicago, Dallas, and other metropolises have done.

March 28, 2018 at 01:13 PM | Permalink


I think the question is based on an erroneous assumption. Looking at my own state's statistics (from our sentencing commission), in a typical year, over 60% of offenders receive probation, and less than a quarter receive a prison sentence. If you limit yourself to first time offenders, around 10% receive a prison sentence. If you look at first time non-violent offenders, the number falls below 4%.

As to rehabilitation, the numbers show that those who receive probation (at least for first, second, and third-time offenders) are substantially less likely to re-offend than those who go to prison. That gap becomes smaller as the number of offenses increases. The numbers also show that -- regardless of disposition -- the likelihood of re-offending increases based on the number of prior offenses.

While the recidivism rates of those who go to prison is not good, there is always the problem of whether that statistic is the result of the decision of whom to send to prison. If you had a good method for predicting who was likely to re-offend, you would probably want to send those offenders to prison to protect the public from them. If you start with a pool of those who are least likely to be rehabilitated, it should not be surprising that many of them are not rehabilitated. Using a poor analogy, it's like having two calculus classes -- one composed of those who got A's and B's in pre-calculus and one composed of those who flunked pre-calculus. If, at the end of those year, the class composed of good students had most of the students score over 85% on the final exam and the class composed of the other students averaged 71% or 72% on the final exam, you would not claim that the difference in the student scores reflected the quality of the teacher (and, in fact, the teacher in the class that only averaged a 71% or 72% may have done a better job in helping the students who started out well behind to partially catch-up to the other class.)

Posted by: tmm | Mar 28, 2018 2:43:26 PM

I think the question should be why do so many return to prison? In our prison system 35% have been committed to prison two to ten times. In addition 22% were in prison because of a probation revocation and 18% were there because of a return from parole or work release.

It is hard to do a risk assessment on a youthful offender because they have not had enough time to create a criminal history and a very high percentage of the probation violators are under 25. The ones with a large number of commitment are obviously older and they tend commit offenses with short maximum penalties so the mean time between commitments is small.

Posted by: John Neff | Mar 28, 2018 8:27:54 PM

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