What’s Out : Being tough on crime by throwing people in prison.
What’s In: Being smart about crime by putting serious offenders behind bars and finding alternative and more cost effective punishments for nonviolent offenders.
It’s true. For the first time in more than thirty years, we’ve got both the left and the right calling for a more sensible way to deal with crime in the U.S. Two years after Senator James Webb,D-VA became the lone wolf decrying the nonsense of the U.S. imprisoning people at a rate five times the world’s average, even conservatives have embraced the need to do something to repair a costly and ineffective system that doesn’t make us any safer.
I’ll admit I was a little skeptical when I first started reading about Right on Crime, the conservative organization backed by such Republican luminaries as Newt Gingrich, William Bennett and Grover Norquist. After reading their proposals, however, I’m encouraged that a platform being advanced by the folks who usually campaign to lock up lawbreakers no matter the cost, may actually lead to some real change. For one, they make no bones about laying out what the problem is and how we got to our current state of diminishing returns:
Under the incarceration-focused solution, societies were safer to the extent that dangerous people were incapacitated, but when offenders emerged from prison – with no job prospects, unresolved drug and mental health problems, and diminished connections to their families and communities – they were prone to return to crime.
All of this, is of course, true, and something that most people can agree on regardless of where they fall on the political spectrum. Obviously, the reason we’re looking at it now is primarily budgetary. It’s just too expensive to put so many people in prison. But if that can spur reform, I’ll take it.
One of the provisions I’m most intrigued about is the conservatives desire to deal with the whole issue of negligent hiring suits, which make so many employers reluctant to hire parolees. Reducing the potential risk of such lawsuits could go a long way towards bringing down recidivism, since people with jobs are less likely to commit new crimes. The challenge is to see whether this will change how employers behave in a labor market with double-digit unemployment.
In two recent New York Times opinion pieces, author Tina Rosenberg also emphasized that” prisoner re-entry has become a hot topic in the field of corrections, largely because of the increasing number of people being released (many as states cut back on budgets). She also did a great job of describing the challenges faced by returnees and describing the patchwork nature of reentry programs — highlighting a few like the renowned Delancey Street residence in San Francisco and Fortune Society’s Fortune Academy (known as “The Castle”), which work. There’s also a piece here citing programs in states like Michigan, that have been successful in helping ex-inmates find jobs.
What do you think is going to happen in terms of criminal justice reform? Earlier this month, Senator Webb and The Prison Fellowship sponsored a symposium at George Mason on “Undoing the Effects of Mass Incarceration.” The State of Louisiana recently announced it’s going to take the plunge to reform it’s prison system. Will this all be a lot of talk or will/can the country follow suit?