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.

Thoughts on the Holder Address: Two Cheers for the New Paradigm

In August, Attorney General Eric Holder delivered a widely noted address to the American Bar Association that seemed to promise significant changes in federal prosecutorial policies.  I wrote these reactions for the Federal Sentencing Reporter.

Following decades in which the U.S. Department of Justice has consistently advocated for a rigid and harsh legalism in criminal justice policy—in which DOJ, in the name of abstract principles of national uniformity, has willfully disregarded the devastating impact of its charging, plea-bargaining, and sentencing practices on real-life human beings—Attorney General Holder’s ABA address seems a breath of fresh air. He calls for a more flexible federal criminal justice system, in which prosecutorial charging priorities are more specifically tailored to meet local needs, in which sentencing is more individualized to the offender and prosecutors sometimes forego mandatory minimum sentences, and in which individual U.S. Attorney Offices experiment with new diversion programs as an alternative to conventional case-processing. Holder believes—correctly, I think—that a more flexible and pragmatic system can achieve better public-safety results at a lesser cost than a system in which preserving the integrity of the federal sentencing guidelines is the overriding value.

Through Holder’s address, DOJ offers its most prominent and unequivocal endorsement yet of an emerging new criminal justice paradigm.   Continue reading “Thoughts on the Holder Address: Two Cheers for the New Paradigm”

Controlling Self-Control

A basic premise of drug courts and similar initiatives is that well-designed interventions administered through the criminal-justice system can help addicts and others with self-control problems to gain better control over their behavior.  This premise, however, flies in the face of an influential line of criminological thinking, which posits that an individual’s relative capacity for self-control is more-or-less fixed by age ten.  Although self-control may improve in absolute terms as an individual ages, a person with poor self-control relative to his peers at age ten will likely remain behind his peers indefinitely, and hence present relatively greater risks of criminality through adulthood.  On this view, interventions that occur only after crimes are committed in the teen and adult years are not likely to have much effect.

However, a competing line of criminological work holds out more promise for the improvement of relative self-control.  A certain amount of empirical research could be cited in support of each position, although nothing of a conclusive nature.

Chongmin Na and Raymond Paternoster add to the empirical research in a new article, “Can Self-Control Change Substantially Over Time?  Rethinking the Relationship Between Self- and Social Control,”  50 Criminology 427 (2012).  Na and Paternoster provide support for the more optimistic view that self-control can change and interventions can help.

Continue reading “Controlling Self-Control”

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”

New Report Shows Big Increase in Arrests for Simple Possession Since 1980

Last week, the Bureau of Justice Statistics released an interesting new report, Arrest in the United States, 1980-2009.  I was particularly interested in the data on arrests for simple drug possession or use, which accounted for about ten percent of all arrests in 2009.  This seems a little high (so to speak), especially in comparison to where we were three decades ago with drug arrests.  Between 1980 and 2009, the number of possession/use arrests more than doubled from 200 per 100,000 people to about 450 per 100,000.  The 2009 number actually represents a downturn from a thirty-year high in 2006 (more than 500 per 100,000).

The arrest rates for simple possession and trafficking have not moved in sync, suggesting shifting patterns of enforcement in the War on Drugs.   Continue reading “New Report Shows Big Increase in Arrests for Simple Possession Since 1980”

More Drug-Court Skepticism

I see that the Justice Policy Institute and the Drug Policy Alliance have both recently issued reports voicing skepticism of drug treatment courts. Despite the widespread popularity and phenomenal growth of drug treatment courts, I’ve long had my doubts. (See this article, for instance.) Contrary to the beliefs of many well-intentioned supporters, they do not necessarily lead to reduced incarceration for drug users and likely reinforce the view – regrettable, in my opinion – that drug use is invariably an appropriate matter for regulation through the court system.

State Legislatures Continue to Grapple With Corrections Budgets

I’ve just read the National Conference of State Legislatures’ new E-Bulletin on developments in sentencing and corrections policy. The dominant theme continues to be fiscal pressures and the need to rein in corrections spending.  States across the country are emphasizing community-based alternatives to imprisonment and enhanced services and release opportunities for inmates.  Here are some highlights from the first half of 2010:   Continue reading “State Legislatures Continue to Grapple With Corrections Budgets”