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.

Violent Crime Versus Property Crime: Marquette Law School Poll Reveals Differences in Public Attitudes

Public opinion polls typically find a preference for tougher treatment of defendants in the criminal-justice system. However, few polls attempt to disaggregate types of crime. When laypeople are asked what they think should be done with “criminals,” their responses are likely based on the relatively unusual violent and sexual offenses that dominate media coverage of crime. However, punitive attitudes toward such offenses may not necessarily indicate that similar attitudes prevail more generally.

In order to develop a better understanding of the extent to which public attitudes differ based on crime type, I collaborated with Professor Darren Wheelock of the Marquette Social and Cultural Sciences Department on a set of questions in the most recent Marquette Law School Poll. Rather than asking respondents about crime in general, we posed questions regarding violent crime and property crime. Our results were consistent with the expectation that members of the public see these two types of crime in a rather different light.

Continue reading “Violent Crime Versus Property Crime: Marquette Law School Poll Reveals Differences in Public Attitudes”

After Return from Prison, Friends Can Be Key to Success or Failure

New research highlights the importance of friends in determining whether returning prisoners will commit new crimes. A considerable body of prior research has demonstrated the importance of family relationships to the returning prisoner, but a new study John Boman and Thomas Mowen suggests that peer relationships may exert an even greater influence over success or failure.

Boman and Mowen collected data on a sample of 625 serious and violent male offenders, including their self-reported substance abuse and new criminal activity over a fifteen-month period after release from prison. The data also included the offenders’ assessment of their family support and the criminal histories of their closest friends.

After controlling for a number of variables, Boman and Mowen identified several factors that proved to be statistically significant predictors of post-release recidivism.   Continue reading “After Return from Prison, Friends Can Be Key to Success or Failure”

Crime and Stigma: New Research Explores the Connections

The colonial Americans famously had their “scarlet letter” punishments, which marked and shamed the criminal. Today, the stigma of a conviction may be less vividly displayed, but it is no less real. Two interesting new criminological articles present research on the impact of this stigma.

First, an article by Jeff Bouffard and LaQuana Askew considers potential crime-reducing benefits of stigma, specifically in relation to sex offender registration and notification (SORN) laws. Such laws, adopted across the United States in the 1990s, require certain convicted sex offenders to register their residence and other information with state authorities on an ongoing basis, sometimes for the rest of their lives. The information is then made publicly available, which can greatly magnify the duration and intensity of the stigma of the conviction.

It was thought that SORN laws might reduce sexual offending in two ways: by deterring prospective offenders from committing crimes that might land them on a registry, and by alerting potential victims to the proximity of individuals who were already registered and hence possibly dangerous. However, several studies thus far have found little or no reduction in offending in the wake of the adoption of SORN legislation.

Continue reading “Crime and Stigma: New Research Explores the Connections”

Race and Risk Assessment

Risk-assessment has become all the rage in American criminal justice. In jurisdictions across the country, criminal-justice officials are utilizing increasingly sophisticated risk-assessment tools, which can be used to predict a given offender’s likelihood to reoffend based on his criminal history and a number of other variables. These predictive evaluations can be brought to bear at several important decisional points in the criminal process: pretrial release, diversion into treatment, sentencing, and others.

Although risk assessment has been widely applauded for its potential to support increased efficiency in the use of scarce criminal-justice resources, a recurring criticism has been that leading risk-assessment tools have built-in racial biases. A particular concern has been the heavy reliance on criminal history; to the extent that criminal history reflects biased actions by police or others in the past, then predictions based on that history may tend to overestimate the relative risk posed by minority defendants. Thus, for instance, a black defendant and a white defendant whose actual risk levels are identical could potentially receive quite different risk scores, leading to quite different bail or sentencing decisions.

Such concerns find some support in the empirical research.

A new study, however, reaches more reassuring conclusions, at least with respect to one risk-assessment tool used in federal court.  Continue reading “Race and Risk Assessment”

Violence Prevention Initiatives: The Difficulty of Building on Early Success

Project Safe Neighborhoods has been among the highest-profile and best-funded national violence prevention initiatives of the past two decades, involving allocations of about $1 billion to U.S. Attorney’s Offices across the country. Evaluations to date have generally been positive, but a new study of the PSN experience in Chicago highlights the challenges of building on early success.

The researchers, Ben Grunwald and Andrew Papachristos, attempted a rigorous, beat-level analysis of the impact of PSN on troubled neighborhoods in the Windy City. With each of the nation’s U.S. Attorneys authorized to develop locally tailored PSN programs, there was considerable city-to-city variation in implementation. In Chicago, PSN had three primary components: (1) diversion of select gun-related cases from state to federal court, where there were often higher sentences available; (2) creation of a multi-agency “gun team” to investigate gun trafficking cases; and (3) development of in-person offender notification forums involving parolees and probationers who had been convicted of gun crimes. Forum attendees were both warned of the punishment they would face if they committed new gun crimes and offered social services to support better choices in the future.

PSN was rolled out in two phases in Chicago.  Continue reading “Violence Prevention Initiatives: The Difficulty of Building on Early Success”

1 in 7 U.S. Prisoners Now in for Life

According to a new report by the Sentencing Project, there are now 206,268 life-sentenced prisoners in the United States, amounting to one in every seven inmates. As a result of a long-term national crime decline and years of effort in many states to divert nonviolent drug offenders from prison, the nation’s overall incarcerated population has been slowly dropping in recent years. However, the number of life-sentenced inmates has continued its seemingly inexorable increase.

The Sentencing Project has helpfully tracked life-sentence trends in a series of reports since 2004, but the new publication includes a valuable addition to the data: those inmates who do not formally have a life sentence, but whose prison terms are so long that they may be fairly characterized as life sentences anyway. The Sentencing Project defines these “virtual life” sentences as those involving prison terms of at least fifty years. Given an average age at arrest of thirty for violent offenders, and a life expectancy of forty-eight more years for American males of that age, the fifty-year cutoff seems reasonable. Using this criterion, the Sentencing Project counted 44,311 inmates with virtual life sentences (included in the 206,268 figure noted above).

Most of the life-sentenced inmates are at least theoretically parole-eligible.  Continue reading “1 in 7 U.S. Prisoners Now in for Life”

New Research Suggests Potential of Prison Furloughs, But Shadow of Willie Horton Still Looms

It remains the paradigmatic moment in the modern history of tough-on-crime politics. In  the summer of 1988, Michael Dukakis, the Democratic Governor of Massachusetts, seemed to be cruising toward a presidential election victory in November. Then, Republican operatives began to pummel him for a horrific failure in Massachusetts’s prison furlough program. This program offered short leaves for inmates to spend time at home, which was thought to help prepare them for their permanent release. The program had a good track record until an inmate named Willie Horton absconded during one of his releases and brutally assaulted a young couple. As the Horton story became more widely known nationally, Dukakis’s lead in the polls evaporated. His eventual loss seemed to confirm that politicians could no longer afford even a tangential association with policies or programs that were perceived to be soft on crime.

The Horton story reverberated for years across the whole field of criminal justice, but perhaps its most direct impact was a sharp constriction in prison furlough programs, which had previously been widely accepted and utilized by American corrections officials.

As furlough programs faded away, so, too, did research on their effectiveness. Although several older studies suggested that furloughs might help to reduce post-release recidivism, there has been a growing need for updated research.

A new paper by L. Maaike Helmus & Marguerite Ternes helps to fill the gap.   Continue reading “New Research Suggests Potential of Prison Furloughs, But Shadow of Willie Horton Still Looms”

Juvenile Court or Adult? New Research on the Consequences of the Decision

Juvenile courts were invented at the end of the nineteenth century and spread rapidly across the U.S. Proponents argued that juvenile offenders were more readily rehabilitated than adults, and should be handled through a different court system that focused on treatment and spared offenders the permanent stigma of a criminal conviction. By the 1990s, though, attitudes toward juvenile offenders had grown more pessimistic and punitive. Although juvenile courts were not eliminated, most states adopted reforms that either reduced the maximum age for juvenile court jurisdiction or facilitated the transfer of some juveniles to adult court.

More recently, the pendulum of public opinion has begun to swing back in favor of juvenile courts. Connecticut, Illinois, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Hampshire, and South Carolina have all expanded the jurisdiction of their juvenile courts. There has also been a push in Wisconsin to raise the age of majority and keep some seventeen-year olds in juvenile court. A few states are even considering raising the age of majority to twenty-one.

Two intriguing new articles explore some of the social consequences of channeling more young offenders into juvenile court.   Continue reading “Juvenile Court or Adult? New Research on the Consequences of the Decision”

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.