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April 6, 2019

"Making Jail a Last Resort" or "If Prisons Don’t Work, What Will?"

The title of this post are the two somewhat different (bad) headlines I have seen for this great New York Times commentary authored by Emily Bazelon (whose great timely new book is titled "Charged: The New Movement to Transform Prosecution and End Mass Incarceration.")  I am much more partial to the first headline than the second, but neither comes close to capturing effectively the spirit and themes of the wide-ranging piece.  So, go read the full piece, and here are some extended excerpts:

The United States spends far too much money locking up far too many people for far too long. A few years ago, a politician had to be brave to say anything like that out loud. Now it’s a mainstream and bipartisan view....  It’s all pretty head-spinning after decades of elected officials competing to lock more people up and spotlight the scariest crimes. Now, with public opinion shifting far and fast and politicians hurrying to catch up, you could even argue that criminal justice reform has become the new marriage equality in terms of the turnaround in public attitudes.

That presents a major opportunity for Democratic presidential candidates.  But for all the energy behind reform, no presidential candidate has articulated a big, comprehensive vision for transformational change.  There’s a consensus that the system is broken, but no agreement on how to fix it.  The presidential candidate looking to distinguish herself might start by looking at a new wave of reform-minded district attorneys who are challenging conventional law-and-order approaches in red states and blue ones.

For the candidates, thematically, a starting point should be that wealth should not determine a person’s fate in court, and profit should not drive the system.  Bail bonds, privatized probation and corporate-run prisons are parasitic features of the justice system.  Ending cash bail should be at the top of every candidate’s criminal justice agenda.  So should getting rid of fines and fees that help fund local governments but trap people in cycles of debt....

To end mass incarceration, however, exempting nonviolent offenses from jail time isn’t enough.  People convicted of violent crimes make up more than half of the country’s state prison population. But the image of prisons overflowing with murderers and rapists is wrong.  In many states, “violent felonies” include offenses like breaking into an empty house or snatching a purse or iPhone on the street.  Reducing sentences for these offenses — and changing what counts as a violent felony to begin with — is a good way to start lowering this share of the prison population.

And that fits in with a second theme for candidates: People deserve a second chance, because many grow and change. They robbed to feed an addiction and then got sober. They assaulted someone because they were mentally ill and then got treatment and stabilized. They mature as they age beyond their teens and early 20s.  That’s why it makes sense to reconsider how long a person should stay in prison after doing some time....

Parole offers another opening for second chances. In Texas, says Scott Henson, an activist who blogs at the site Grits for Breakfast, “our parole rates have gone from 15 percent to the high 30s in the last decade,” He said the increase is “having more impact than any bill we’ve passed even through the legislature.” He thinks the reason for the rise is a humdrum logistical one: The state unofficially uses parole as a way to reduce prison overcrowding.

We should also focus on redefining the terms of the public safety debate.  Ending mass incarceration, and ensuring fairness throughout the criminal justice system, aren’t in tension with public safety.  They’re integral to it.  People tend to uphold the law when they believe it’s reasonable and applied evenly.  When people have that faith, they are more likely to help the police solve crimes....

Finally, incarceration should be the last resort, not the default.  In Brooklyn, District Attorney Eric Gonzalez has said this idea is central to his tenure.  His counterpart in Boston, Rachael Rollins, last month instructed prosecutors to ask for jail only “when any other recommendation would compromise” safety.  When no other option than jail or prison will do, it’s important to remember that the vast majority of people who go in also get out. Making sure they have the tools to lead productive lives when they emerge — like job training and access to decent housing — is a public good.

Presidents don’t actually control the key levers of the American punishment machine.  About 80 percent of the people who are locked up today are in state and local jails and prisons.  But presidents, and presidential campaigns, can raise the profile of an issue and set a tone.  The way they talk about repairing our broken criminal justice system speaks loudly to broader issues about racial and wealth inequality. Presidents can also shape the behavior of states and cities with funding and other incentives, like redirecting money to treatment and prevention programs.

Were I in charge of devising a headline for this piece, I might go with something like "How Prosecutors and Presidential Candidates Advance Criminal Justice Reform." But this is not the first, nor will it be the last, great newspaper piece without a headline to serve it well.  Of course, the piece itself leaves out some important stories like the achievement of the FIRST STEP Act and the need for clemency reform (points recently stressed by Senator and Prez canadide Amy Klobuchar).  But there is so much getting done and needing to be done in this space now, it is hard to fault any piece of writing for not covering everything.

April 6, 2019 at 10:51 AM | Permalink

Comments

According to the US Census in 1850 the combined state prison population was 6,700 and by 1870 it was 32,900 a growth factor of 4.9 in 20 years or an annual rate of 0.25. From 1870 to 1910 the state prison population grew at an annual rate of 0.05. In 1910 the prison population was 67,800 and by 1938 it peaked at 162,400 with a temporary dip caused by WW I. The growth factor was 2.4 in 28 years giving and annual rate of 0.08. In the 45 years between 1938 and 1983 except for population dips caused by WW II and the Vietnam war the annual rate was 0.05. The growth from the dip in 1972 caused by the Vietnam War to 1983 was caused primarily by the recovery from the war. There were several drug related spikes in arrests and emergency room visits that occurred later.

The last persistent episode of rapid prison population growth was from 405,000 in 1983 to 1,407,000 in 2009 a growth factor of 3.5 in 26 years an annual rate of 0.13. In 2016 the combined state prison population was 1,375,600 and the growth factor was -0.022 with an annual rate of -0.003 essentially constant.

The historical growth rates for combined state prison populations were 0.25 when the US population was increasing rapidly, 0.05, 0.08, 0.05, 0.13 and -0.003. From 1850 to 2016 we have experience high, medium, low and essentially zero prison growth rates. In the past mass incarceration follows a transition from low to medium or high growth rates.

What happens next depends on the actions of governors and state legislators. Nothing good happened when the feds horned in on state correction policies.

Posted by: John Neff | Apr 6, 2019 9:28:02 PM

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