My New Book Is Out

My new book, Prisons and Punishment in America: Examining the Facts, is now available. Structured as a series of questions and answers, the book synthesizes the law and social science on sentencing, corrections, and prisoner reentry. Individual chapters cover:

  • Sentencing law and practice
  • Alternatives to incarceration
  • Experience and consequences of incarceration
  • Release and life after prison
  • Women, juveniles, and other special offender populations
  • Causes and significance of mass incarceration in the United States
  • Race, ethnicity, and punishment
  • Public opinion, politics, and reform

The book is intended to be accessible to readers who do not have training in law or social science, but I also hope that there are some aspects of the book that will be of interest even to those who are already quite familiar with the workings of the criminal justice system.

My New Book Is Out, Explains Persistence of Mass Incarceration in America Despite Two Decades of Reform Efforts

My new book, The Failure of Sentencing Reform, is now out. (Publisher webpage here; Amazon here.) The book is a sort of coming full circle for me. Back in 2002, near the start of my career as a law professor, I wrote a short essay entitled “The New Politics of Sentencing,” in which I heralded bipartisan sentencing reforms that had recently been adopted in a handful of states. The reforms focused particularly on reversing excessive drug imprisonment and resulted in large part from the fiscal pressures created by mass incarceration. “Faced with crushing budget deficits,” I predicted, “states will no doubt continue to look to corrections as a source of cost-savings.”

Fifteen years later, my prediction has been confirmed: nearly all of the states have now adopted reforms that roll back mandatory minimums, permit earlier release from prison, or promote alternatives to incarceration. Yet, the national prison population stands today essentially where it was in 2002. This is the failure I explore in the book. In particular, I highlight two fundamental flaws with reform efforts to date: (1) an excessive emphasis on moving non-violent drug offenders out of prison, even though this population had not been a major driver of mass incarceration; and (2) an excessive reliance on prosecutorial, judicial, and correctional discretion, with little attention to the fiscal and political considerations that push officials to err on the side of incarceration.

Wisconsinites Give Criminal Justice System Poor Marks, Especially for Offender Rehabilitation

We expect a lot from our criminal-justice system, and we don’t seem very impressed with the results we are getting.  These are two of the notable lessons that emerge from the most recent Marquette Law School Poll of Wisconsin residents, the results of which were released earlier today.

In one part of the survey, respondents were asked to assess the importance of five competing priorities for the criminal-justice system.  As to each of the five, a majority indicated that the priority was either “very important” or “absolutely essential.”  The five priorities were:

  • Making Wisconsin a safer place to live (91.6% said either very important or absolutely essential)
  • Ensuring that people who commit crimes receive the punishment they deserve (88.1%)
  • Keeping crime victims informed about their cases and helping them to understand how the system works (81.0%)
  • Rehabilitating offenders and helping them to become contributing members of society (74.1%)
  • Reducing the amount of money we spend on imprisoning criminals (51.2%)

The especially high level of support for “making Wisconsin a safer place to live” was notable in light of the much smaller number of respondents (21.4%) who said that they or an immediate family member had ever been the victim of a serious crime.  This is line with results from last July’s Poll, which indicated that more than 85% of Wisconsinites feel safe walking alone in their neighborhoods at night.  Still, making the state safer remains a high priority for more than 90% of Wisconsin residents.

Respondents were separately asked how well the system was performing along five separate dimensions.   Continue reading “Wisconsinites Give Criminal Justice System Poor Marks, Especially for Offender Rehabilitation”

Which States Have Reduced Their Prison Populations in the Past Decade?

By 2002, in the wake of a recession that caused major fiscal challenges in many states, there was an increasingly widespread recognition that the American imprisonment boom of the 1980s and 1990s was not economically sustainable.  Dozens of states adopted new sentencing and corrections policies that were intended to restrain further growth in imprisonment.  These reforms seem to have had some success, as imprisonment rates finally stabilized after so many years of explosive growth.  However, very little progress has been made toward bringing U.S. imprisonment rates back down to our historical norms.  The “if you build it, they will come” principle seems in evidence — after so much prison capacity was built in the boom years, we’ve found ways to keep using it even as crime rates have tumbled down.

A few states have had success, however, in downsizing their prison populations.  Here are the ten states whose prison populations dropped between December 2002 and December 2012:

New York             -19%
New Jersey           -17%
California             -16%
Connecticut          -15%
Michigan              -14%
Maryland              -9%
South Carolina     -5%
Wisconsin             -5%
Rhode Island        -2%
Hawaii                  -1%

Even the largest decreases on the list are rather small compared with the size of the pre-2002 increases.  Nonetheless, some might wonder whether reduced imprisonment has resulted in more crime.  With that concern in mind, I gathered data on violent crime in the five states that experienced double-digit drops in imprisonment.   Continue reading “Which States Have Reduced Their Prison Populations in the Past Decade?”

New Report Offers More Complete Calculation of Costs of Imprisonment

How much does imprisonment cost a state’s taxpayers?  The question is conventionally answered simply by looking at the budget of the state’s department of corrections.  In some states, however, a substantial share of the imprisonment-related expenses are borne by other state agencies or otherwise do not appear in the corrections department’s budget.  In order to provide a more complete accounting of the costs of imprisonment, researchers from the Vera Institute of Justice recently collected and analyzed data from forty states (including Wisconsin).  Their findings were published in the Federal Sentencing Reporter at 25 Fed. Sent. Rep. 68 (2012).

The Vera researchers identified eleven categories of costs that are not included in corrections budgets.  The most important of these, amounting to almost $2 billion in costs nationally in 2010, took the form of gaps in the funding of health benefits for retired corrections employees.  In some states, this and other off-the-budget costs added up to a large share of total prison costs.  For instance, in both Connecticut and Illinois, about one-third of the total prison cost was outside the corrections budget.  When hidden expenses are so high, the public may have a hard time evaluating the true cost-effectiveness of state sentencing and corrections policies.

Wisconsin’s hidden costs, at 8.5 percent of the total, were somewhat below the average among the forty states studied.   Continue reading “New Report Offers More Complete Calculation of Costs of Imprisonment”

Incarceration and Collateral Damage: Prof. Traci Burch to Speak at Marquette on Nov. 29

We live in an era of unprecedented mass incarceration. Since the mid-1970′s, America’s imprisonment rate has quintupled, reaching heights otherwise unknown in the western world. We embarked on this incarceration binge with little understanding of what impact it would have on families and communities. The past fifteen years, however, have witnessed a great outpouring of research and writing on the collateral effects of imprisonment. Those who work in the criminal-justice system should be – and I think increasingly are – knowledgeable about the real impact that their work has on the lives of the many human beings who are connected to each incarcerated person.

Practitioners (and students) who would like to learn more about this important issue will have a wonderful opportunity to do so in two weeks, when Professor Traci Burch of Northwestern University comes to Marquette Law School to speak on the “The Collateral Consequences of Incarceration.” Here is the description:

Dr. Burch will discuss the effects of mass incarceration on families and communities on Thursday, November 29th. This talk is based in part on her forthcoming book, Punishment and Participation: How Criminal Convictions Threaten American Democracy (University of Chicago Press). Dr. Burch will discuss how criminal justice policies shape disease, crime, domestic partner relationships, children and voting participation in low-income communities.

This event is co-sponsored by Marquette’s Department of Political Science, Law School, Klinger College of Arts and Sciences, Office of the Vice Provost for Research, Department of Social and Cultural Sciences, and Institute for Urban Life.

The talk will begin at 5:15, with an informal reception and light refreshments to follow. Additional information and a link to register for the talk are here.

For Punishment, Do Costs Count?

In my previous post, I discussed some of the fascinating results from the recent Marquette University Law School Poll, in which about 700 Wisconsin residents were asked various questions about crime and punishment.  In this post, I’ll consider what the Poll results have to say about a crucial question for sentencing policy and politics: do costs matter, or are the interests served by punishment of such overriding social importance that expense is no object at sentencing?

This question is related to another question I raised in the previous post: is punishment valued more in instrumental or symbolic terms?  If people look to punishment primarily as a way to decrease crime and increase public safety (the instrumental approach), then costs seem to have a natural place in the equation.  As much as we value our safety, there are always limits to what we are willing to spend to protect ourselves.    Few of us hire body guards, or purchase bulletproof vests, or build panic rooms in our homes — the small reductions in risk that we would enjoy simply do not seem worth the cost and inconvenience, and there seems nothing odd about thinking of risk in these sorts of cost-benefit terms.  But if punishment is instead viewed in symbolic terms — as making a statement about who we are as a people and what our deepest moral values are — then cost considerations seem out of place.  It would make us uncomfortable to say, “X is the right thing to do, but I’m not going to do it because it is too expensive.”

The Poll did not ask the big philosophical question about costs directly, but several questions seem to get at it indirectly.  The answers suggest some real ambivalence and division in public attitudes.

Continue reading “For Punishment, Do Costs Count?”

New Report on Criminal-Justice Reforms in 2011: States Continue to Look for Ways to Cut Costs

In a new report entitled “The State of Sentencing 2011: Developments in Policy and Practice,” Nicole Porter of The Sentencing Project summarizes the most recent set of criminal-justice reforms adopted across the United States.  Continuing a recurring theme in recent years, many of these reforms are intended to reduce incarceration numbers and corrections budgets.  Here are some highlights:

Continue reading “New Report on Criminal-Justice Reforms in 2011: States Continue to Look for Ways to Cut Costs”

A Tale of Three States, Pt. 3: Harsh Hoosiers

In the first post in this series, I explored the large gap between the incarceration rates of Minnesota and Wisconsin.  In the second, I discussed racial disparities in the incarcerated populations of the two states.  The disparities in both states are wide, although Wisconsin’s are somewhat larger.  In this entry, I add a third state, Indiana, to the statistical comparisons.  As another medium-sized midwestern state, one might expect that Indiana would have criminal-justice numbers that are similar to Minnesota’s and Wisconsin’s.  Indiana’s numbers, however, point to a criminal-justice sustem that is much larger and harsher than those of its northern neighbors.

As detailed in the table that appears after the jump, Indiana’s imprisonment rate (about 460 per 100,000) easily outstrips Wisconsin’s (387) and dwarfs Minnesota’s (178).  Perhaps even more surprisingly, Indiana’s probation population also exceeds Minnesota’s.  My Minnesota-Wisconsin comparison suggested that Wisconsin imprisons many defendants who would get probation in Minnesota, leading to a much smaller probation population in the former than the latter.  But Indiana seems to incarcerate the same way that Wisconsin does, without any accompanying reduction in the probation numbers.

For that reason, Indiana’s total supervised population of 167,872 is the largest of the three states (although Minnesota, with the smallest overall population of three, still has a somewhat larger per capita supervised population, thanks to its enormous per capita probation number).

Indiana also leads the way in crime.

Continue reading “A Tale of Three States, Pt. 3: Harsh Hoosiers”

Chisholm’s Take on Criminal-Justice Reform

I posted last week on a recent op-ed by Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke opposing so-called “smart-on-crime” initiatives.  Clarke may have been responding, at least in part, to Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm’s Feb. 11 address at Marquette Law School.  (Chisholm’s text is here, and video is here.)  Whether or not Clarke meant to take on Chisholm, it is clear their respective approaches differ quite dramatically.  I’ll share some thoughts in this post on Chisholm’s proposals, which I generally find more appealing than Clarke’s call for mass incapacitation.

Chisholm advances three proposals.  First, “local safety officials must continue to adopt evidence based practices at all levels, from the time a person has contact with a police officer until the time they are released back into the community.” 

Continue reading “Chisholm’s Take on Criminal-Justice Reform”