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Inside Criminal Justice

Choice: Cut Prison Population, Or Accept New Normal

April 30, 2014 02:29:47 pm

Photo by California Department of Corrections, via Wikimedia Commons

The expert views of a National Research Council committee could provide the intellectual backing for a change of sentencing policies that could "significantly" reduce America's world-leading imprisonment rate.

Or the quadrupling of prisoner numbers in the last few decades could be accepted as the "new normal."

Those stark choices were outlined yesterday by Jeremy Travis, president of John Jay College of Criminal Justice and chairman of the panel, which declared that "the nation's incarceration levels are unnecessarily high." The committee issued a report two years in the making that analyzed how the U.S. came to put 2.2 million adults behind bars and the consequences of that high rate for society.

The experts said the high imprisonment total has become a "key contributor to the political, social, and economic marginalization" of African Americans and other disadvantaged groups.

A report more than 400 pages long included a wealth of statistics on the problem, among them that nearly 1 in 100 adults is behind bars--a rate 5 to 10 times higher than that in Western Europe and other democracies.

The effects of "harsh panel policies" have hit blacks and Hispanics hardest, the panel said, noting that in 2010, the imprisonment rate for blacks was 4.6 times that for whites.

Between 1980 and 2000, the number of children with incarcerated fathers increased from 350,000 to 2.1 million, about 3 percent of all U.S. children.

A major question is whether policymakers will pay heed to the report's finding that the U.S. "has gone past the point that the numbers of people in prison can be justified by social benefits."

The total number of prisoners has dropped slightly in recent years, but not the dramatic reduction the committee advocates. Travis said the group did not recommend a specific target for lowering the prison population, preferring that a "political and public conversation" come to a consensus.

The experts did lay out "guiding principles" for "good justice policy" among them that "criminal sentences should be proportionate to the seriousness of the crime" and that "punishment shold not exceed the minimum needed to achieve its legitimate purpose."

A central conclusion was that many prison sentences are longer than they need to be, especially given that the explosion in the prison population has had only a minor effect on the crime rate. "Because recidivism rates decline markedly with age, lengthy prison sentences, unless they specifically target very high-rate or extremely dangerous offenders, are an inefficient approach to preventing crime by incapacitation," the report said.

The committee did not engage in what Travis called "political prognostication" to forecast whether federal and state policy makers would make changes that would result in significant lowering of the prison population.

For that to happen, the report said, there must be a "new public consensus that current policies have been, on balance, more harmful than effective and are inconsistent with U.S. history and notions of justice." It added that "making this case to the public will require determined political leadership."

Several states have acted in recent years to adjust their sentencing policies in a way that trims prison populations, but the most dramatic change has come in California under court orders upheld by the Supreme Court.

President Obama said recently that he planned to offer clemency to many imprisoned federal drug offenders, and several U.S. senators have proposed measures to halt continuing growth in the federal inmate population. However, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) has indicated that he will proceed cautiously on sentencing reform, and many changes on the state level have been slow to unfold.

The report was written by a 19-member committee consisting mostly of academics but also Chief Federal Judge Ricardo Hinojosa of McAllen, Tx., a member of the U.S. Sentencing Commission; Tony Fabelo of the Council of State Governments; and Khalil Gibran Muhammad of the Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York City Public Library.

Besides Travis, other committee members who took part in a briefing on the report yesterday in Washington, D.C., were Bruce Western, a sociology professor at Harvard and vice chair of the panel, Craig W. Haney, a psychology professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and Glenn C. Loury, an economics professor at Brown University.

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington DC Bureau Chief of The Crime Report. He welcomes comments from readers.

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