The current trend of prison downsizing in the United States may not succeed unless experts can advise policy makers promptly about which non-prison programs for convicts change offender behavior, says criminologist Joan Petersilia of Stanford Law School.
In a keynote address to the National Institute of Justice's annual conference Tuesday in Arlington VA, Petersilia warned that it is not inevitable that the current movement among states to reduce prison populations and close penal institutions will continue.
"We have been here before," Petersilia said.
She recalled that many states adopted intensive probation supervision in the 1980s and 1990s as an alternative to prison, but research results on its effectiveness were disappointing.
"We've got to stop overselling community corrections--and under-delivering," Petersilia said.
She worries that, as in previous decades, prison population totals will moderate or recede in the short run in large part as a way to save government money---but when the economy improves, political leaders will start filling prisons again when they have no proof that non-prison programs worked.
California a Test Case
The test case for prison reform is Petersilia's home state of California, where the evolving prisoner "realignment" plan is the "biggest criminal justice experiment ever conducted in America," Petersilia says.
Even many Californians are not aware that in the last 18 months, the state's prison population has dropped from 172,000 to 135,000, and the number of parolees has plummeted even more sharply, from 132,000 to 60,000.
While this sounds promising to corrections reformers, Petersilia says it is happening so fast that officials and offenders alike are just beginning to understand the impact.
Many former inmates complain that they have been taken off the parole rolls so quickly that they are losing government benefits that are reserved for parolees. Some are being asked to get back on parole as a result, she says.
In addition, many prosecutors and law enforcement officials oppose aspects of realignment, contending that it will lead to rising crime rates.
One big problem is that government agencies are not pouring sufficient funding into ex-inmate rehabilitation.
Petersilia's Stanford Criminal Justice Center, which is receiving a federal grant to evaluate the California prisoner realignment program of Gov. Jerry Brown, is building a database of how the state's 58 counties are spending the $2 billion they are getting from the state to perform corrections-sytem functions that the state formerly did.
So far, only 10 percent of that money is going to treatment programs, with the bulk going to sheriff's office, local jails, probations staff, and court services. That bodes ill for keeping ex-inmates from returning to crime, Petersilia says.
"We can't just sit and watch this go off the train track," she told fellow researchers at the NIJ conference.
One hopeful sign, she added, is that public opinion currently supports the idea of putting fewer people behind bars. She cited the popularity of Ohio State University Prof. Michelle Alexander's book "The New Jim Crow" on mass incarceration of blacks.
Petersilia believes that the public will back expenditures of public funds on projects that truly help former prisoners get their lives back together. She has some hope for "social impact bonds," also known as "pay for success," which are contracts with government agencies in which entrepreneurs invest in projects that produce improved social outcomes and save public money.
Initial interest in the concept has been seen in the juvenile justice area, Petersilia says.
If these and other non-prison alternatives can't be proved to work, she said, the "incredibly huge" constituencies for the status quo, including labor unions for prison employees and rural communities that depend on income from prisons, will prevail.
The NIJ conference, being held in Crystal City, Va., near Washington, D.C., concludes today (Wednesday). The annual event has been cancelled for next year over budgetary concerns and will resume in 2014.
Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and a Washington-based contributing editor to The Crime Report. He welcomes comments from readers.