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.
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”
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”
For the past four years, Darren Wheelock and I have collaborated with Charles Franklin and the Marquette Law School Poll on a series of surveys of public attitudes toward sentencing and corrections policy in Wisconsin. Our 2015 results, released last week, seem to show remarkably high levels of support for prisoner rehabilitation. Of those who were asked, more than 80% expressed support for each of the following:
- Expanding counseling programs for prisoners
- Expanding job training programs for prisoners
- Expanding educational programs for prisoners
- Helping released offenders find jobs
At the same time, there are also indications of substantial, if somewhat lower, levels of support for various punitive policies:
Continue reading “Marquette Poll Reveals Support for Rehabilitation of Prisoners”
Every decade or so, the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics releases a big national study of prisoner recidivism. The latest BJS research came out last week, and the numbers were no less depressing than they were in 2002. Here’s the report’s lead:
Overall, 67.8% of the 404,638 state prisoners released in 2005 in 30 states were arrested within 3 years of release, and 76.6% were arrested within 5 years of release.
Simply put, failure is the norm, not the exception, for individuals released from U.S. prisons.
High recidivism rates constitute the most difficult and important challenge for those of us who would like to see fewer long sentences and more generous opportunities for inmates to earn early release. If most prisoners are rearrested shortly after they get out, doesn’t that lead inexorably to the conclusion that we should err on the side of more, not less, time behind bars?
Certainly, the woeful recidivism numbers should take indiscriminate, mass releases off the table. On the other hand, I think it is possible to overstate the significance of national rearrest rates for sentencing and corrections policy. These numbers should be the start, not the end, of the conversation.
Continue reading “Oh, Those Woeful Recidivism Numbers”
Last week, I spoke on truth in sentencing at Marquette Law School as part of Mike Gousha’s “On the Issues” series. My PowerPoint slides and a video of the event are available here. Alan Borsuk summarized some of the key points in this blog post.
If you watch the video, you will see that time constraints caused me to skip over a couple of slides. I’ll fill in those gaps here and then suggest where I would like to see Wisconsin go with early release.
First, I think one of the most interesting and puzzling aspects of our polling research is that substantial numbers of Wisconsin voters say they support both truth in sentencing (“TIS”) and release from prison when an offender can demonstrate that he is no longer a threat to public safety, even though these two policies are in tension with one another. My Marquette colleague Darren Wheelock and I have been studying this “both-and” group to better understand what underlies their thinking. Comprising more than one-quarter of our polling sample, I think of this group as the TIS swing voters — the people who support TIS, but not so strongly as to categorically rule out support for a well-designed, well-justified early release program. Continue reading “Truth in Sentencing and Early Release: A Follow Up”
- Wisconsin voters do not favor indiscriminate harshness in the treatment of criminal offenders, but rather believe that the costs and benefits of imprisonment should be carefully weighed in each case. In the July 2013 Marquette Law School Poll, a clear majority of Wisconsin voters (55.3%) expressed support for the idea that “prisons are a government spending program, and just like any other government program, they should be put to the cost-benefit test. States should analyze their prison populations and figure out if there are offenders in expensive prison cells who can be safely and effectively supervised in the community at a lower cost.”
- An overwhelming majority of Wisconsin voters (85%) agree that “criminals who have genuinely turned their lives around deserve a second chance.”
- An overwhelming majority of Wisconsin voters (86%) say that they “feel safe walking alone at night” in their neighborhoods.” Although fear and outrage have sometimes dominated public discussion of criminal justice policies, Wisconsin is ready for a more balanced conversation that considers what policies will deliver the greatest benefits to the state at the least cost over the long run.
Imprisonment and Crime Trends
Continue reading “Thoughts on Imprisonment in Wisconsin: Past, Present, and Future”
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.
There is a natural tendency to believe that the offenders who have committed the most serious crimes are the most dangerous. We assume that the commission of a heinous crime reveals intrinsic character flaws that will inevitably manifest themselves in future offenses. But is this true? Empirical research casts doubt on the assumption. For instance, the well-known study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics on recidivism among prisoners released in 1994 found lower rearrest rates among violent offenders than property offenders (61.7 percent versus 73.8 percent), with homicide offenders having the lowest rearrest rates among all of the categories studied (40.7 percent).
A new study of parole violations by Ryken Grattet, Jeffrey Lin, and Joan Petersilia reaches a similar conclusion. Their dataset included the records of more than 250,000 parolees in California in 2003 and 2004. Here is what they found regarding the effect of offense category:
The commitment offense variables indicate that parolees who had last been incarcerated for property offenses pose the greatest risk to violate, followed by parolees committed for drug (the omitted category), violent, and sexual offenses. Parolees committed to prison for violent offenses have a 19.1 percent lower hazard of violation than drug offenders, and parolees committed for sexual offenses have a one-third lower risk than drug offenders. Individuals with greater numbers of prior violent convictions also have a lower hazard of violation. For each additional violent conviction, a parolee has a 2.0 percent lower hazard of violation. The number of serious convictions also lowers the hazard of violation by 3.4 percent per prior serious offense. . . .
[P]olicy makers and the public, who often assume that the seriousness of a parolee’s past behavior is positively correlated with risk, might be surprised to learn that markers of the seriousness of the offender’s criminal history actually lower the risk of violation. In other words, the type of crime a parolee has been convicted of is indeed predictive of future bad behavior; however, it is drug and property—so-called low-level offenders—that pose heightened risks of violations. (385-87)
What is new and particularly helpful about this study is that it attempted to hold supervision intensity constant.
Continue reading “Which Parolees Are the Biggest Risks? The Answer May Surprise You”
The Seventh Circuit’s opinion last week in United States v. Musso (No. 11-1153) provides a disquieting glimpse of the Orwellian world of supervised release for the sex offender. Musso served a three-year sentence for possession of child pornography, then began a period of supervised release subject to a special condition requiring him to “participate in an approved sexual offender treatment program” and to “abide by all rules, requirements, and conditions of the treatment program.” Musso was later found to have violated various of these “rules, requirements, and conditions,” resulting in the revocation of his release and a new six-month term of incarceration. Here are the horrible things Musso did while he was out:
Continue reading “Not Motivated to Do Your Homework? Back to Prison for Six Months!”