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May 25, 2021

"The Power of Parsimony"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new report authored by Daryl Atkinson and Jeremy Travis as part of Columbia University’s Square One Project.  The whole report looks like a must-read, and here is the start and close of its introduction:

As our country comes to terms with the damage caused by our excessive reliance on punishment as a response to crime, the use of the criminal law to sustain racial hierarchies, and the ways the justice system has undermined our democracy and weakened communities, we must ask: what principles should guide this fundamental reexamination of a seemingly immovable status quo? In this paper we propose that the principle of parsimony — if re-considered while recognizing the historical racist underpinnings of the American criminal legal system — can provide a framework that serves as both critique of that history and an elevating aspiration for a reimagined approach to justice.

We begin with the classic formulation of the principle of parsimony: under traditional social contract theory, the state is only authorized to exercise the lightest intrusion into a person’s liberty interest that is necessary to achieve a legitimate social purpose.  Any intrusion beyond what is necessary is inherently illegitimate and may even constitute state violence. We define “liberty interest” as a person’s right to be left alone — free from harmful state intervention. Determining the extent to which any intrusion is necessary, ascertaining the legitimacy of the social purpose, and recognizing the value of beneficial state support require pragmatic calculations, but the power of parsimony lies in its emphasis on the primacy of the liberty interest and its limitation on state power....

We believe that a process of reckoning with the historical failures of the state to honor the social contract — and the role of the criminal law in that tragic history — can help facilitate the creation of a new vision of justice.  The principle of parsimony can support this ambition by requiring that our society affirm the centrality of individual liberty, limit the application of state power, come to terms with our history, and reconstruct our social contract to include those communities that have been excluded.  The vision of justice that emerges from rigorous application of these guiding principles would be grounded in human dignity, social justice, an honest understanding of our past, and vibrant community life.

We begin this paper by describing the history of the principle of parsimony, which has philosophical and jurisprudential roots.  We then apply the principle of parsimony to three aspects of criminal justice — prison sentences, collateral consequences, and solitary confinement — to demonstrate the analytical power of this framework.  We conclude the paper by suggesting that the principle of parsimony can be an integral part of the process of “reimagining justice” that is now underway in our country and lies at the heart of the Square One Project.  We believe that the principle of parsimony, as reinterpreted to require a reckoning, can make a uniquely powerful contribution to the current era as reformers, abolitionists, activists, legislators, and system stakeholders are bringing new energy and urgency to the challenge of creating a compelling vision for the future of justice in America.

May 25, 2021 at 09:44 AM | Permalink


This is a potential "break out shot" that could change the picture on the table. I'd note the potential powerful confluence here with the calls (by Brandon delPozo, et al.) for a new focus on iatrogenesis. (Public defender).

Posted by: James Doyle | May 25, 2021 10:10:11 AM

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