“Good Time” in Washington: A Model for Wisconsin?

In my previous post, I argued that Wisconsin should consider reinstituting “good time” for prisoners, that is, credits toward accelerated release that can be earned based on good behavior.  An established program that Wisconsin might emulate is Washington’s.

Washington has long been regarded as a national leader in criminal justice.  Indeed, Wisconsin has previously borrowed from other Washington innovations, such as its “three strikes and you are out” law and its civil commitment program for sexually violent offenders.  Washington’s good-time law takes a balanced, moderate approach.  It is neither among the most generous nor the most stringent in the nation.

Notably, Washington’s recidivism rate has been consistently lower than both the national average and Wisconsin’s.  Although many factors contribute to a state’s recidivism rate, some research suggests that the incentives established by a well-designed good-time program may help to reduce repeat offending.

With the rules set forth here, the Washington program works like this:

(more…)

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Why No “Good Time” in Wisconsin?

Unlike most other states, Wisconsin does not recognize prisoners’ good behavior with credits toward accelerated release.  Wisconsin had such a “good time” program for well over a century, but eliminated it as part of the policy changes in the 1980s and 1990s that collectively left the state unusually — perhaps even uniquely — inflexible in its terms of imprisonment.  I’ve been researching the history of good time in Wisconsin in connection with a forthcoming law review article.

Wisconsin adopted its first good time law in 1860, which placed it among the first states to embrace this new device for improving prison discipline.  Twenty years later, in 1880, the Legislature expanded good time and restructured the program in the form it would retain for about a century.  In the first year of imprisonment, an inmate could earn one month’s credit for good behavior; in the second, two months; in the third, three; and so forth.  Credits maxed out at six months per year.   A model prisoner with a ten-year term, for instance, might earn enough credits to knock off two years or more from the time served.

In Wisconsin and elsewhere, good time has had a distinct history, structure, and purpose from parole.   (more…)

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Overcoming the Pathologies of Hypermasculinity in Prison

Sharon Dolovich is one of my favorite writers on prisons.  I’ve especially appreciated her work on the K6G unit of the L.A. County Jail.  This is a segregated unit reserved for gay men and transgender women.  Her latest article on K6G explores the relatively positive experience of inmates in the unit so as to illuminate the core pathologies of life elsewhere in the Jail, and by extension in most male penal institutions across the country.

As Dolovich sees things, hypermasculinity is the defining characteristic of life in the general inmate population.  Here’s how she describes life in the GP units:   (more…)

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Wisconsin Prisoners, c. 1960

As part of my ongoing research into the origins of mass incarceration, I’ve been spending some time recently with a voluminous, fifty-year-old government report by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, Characteristics of State Prisoners, 1960.  This was a once-a-decade production by the BOP in those days, and it contains a wealth of information.

I find it fascinating to have this window into 1960, for at that time — unbeknownst to the report’s authors, of course — everything in American criminal justice was just about to change forever.  In fact, crime was already on the rise in the Northeast United States, foreshadowing a nationwide swell of violence that would continue to gather force until well into the 1970’s.  Even today, we have yet to return to the historically low levels of criminal violence of the mid-twentieth century.  And then, on the heels of the crime wave, came the great imprisonment boom — a period of unprecedented growth in American incarceration that began in about 1975 and continued uninterrupted for more than three decades.

Yes, it is easy to imagine 1960 as a more innocent time!

Using the state breakdowns from the 1960 report, I’ve drawn some comparisons between the Wisconsin prison population of then and now:   (more…)

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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.

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The American Prison in 1931: High Ideals, Harsh Realities

As part of my ongoing review of the work of the Wickersham Commission, I am reading the body’s 1931 Report on Penal Institutions, Probation, and Parole.  I was much struck by the Commission’s ringing statement about the purpose of the prison:

The function of the penal institutions is protection of society.  To this end all efforts must be bent and all administrative methods be adapted.  All judgment upon the functioning of our prison system, or any unit within in, must be in terms of protection of society.  This raises the question of how penal institutions can best contribute to this objective.  There seems but one answer possible — by the reformation of the criminal.  Nearly all prisoners, even within the longterm institutions, are ultimately released. . . . Unless these prisoners are so readjusted before release that they are more likely to be law-abiding citizens than before they were arrested and sentenced, then the prison has not served its purpose.  If the prison experience not merely fails to improve the character of the inmate but actually contributes to his deterioration; if, as is charged, our prisons turn the less hardened into more hardened criminals, then the prison has not only failed in its duty to protect society but has in turn become a contributor to the increase of crime within the community.  Stated positively, it is the function of the prison to find the means so to reshape the interests, attitudes, habits, the total character of the individual so as to release him both competent and willing to find a way of adjusting himself to the community without further law violations.  (6-7)

This passage strikes me for two reasons.  First, viewed from a contemporary perspective, it seems a remarkably limited and arguably very naive view of the prison’s function.   (more…)

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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:

(more…)

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Private Prisons and Accountability

Last week, in Minneci v. Pollard (No. 10-1104), the United States Supreme Court held that employees of privately run federal prisons cannot be sued for money damages for violations of constitutional rights.  By coincidence, last week also saw the release of a new report on private prisons by the Sentencing Project.  The report raises a multitude of concerns with private prisons, which may leave the reader troubled that the Supreme Court has now chosen to diminish the accountability of for-profit jailers.

Here are the (quite critical) conclusions of the Sentencing Project:

(more…)

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Why Following the Rules Should Get You Out of Prison Early

I have a new paper on SSRN entitled “Solving the Good Time Puzzle: Why Following the Rules Should Get You Out of Prison Early.”  Most U.S. jurisdictions permit inmates to obtain credit toward early release based on good behavior in prison.  It’s not immediately clear, though, why the severity of a prison sentence should vary depending on how well an offender follows the rules while incarcerated.  No amount of good or bad conduct in prison is capable of changing the seriousness of the underlying crime for which the offender is being punished.

The most common justification for good time is probably that it makes the job of prison administrators easier by giving them an additional set of incentives and sanctions to hold over inmates.  Critics question, however, whether the potential loss of good time really does add anything to the deterrent effect of much more immediate sanctions, such as disciplinary segregation.  Critics also object that the loss of good time — functionally an extension of the prison term — is not a just and proportionate response to rules violations that may be relatively technical and harmless and that need not be proven through formal trial-type proceedings.

In the paper, I argue that good time can thought of and justified in a different light.  In essence, I suggest that good conduct in prison can be conceptualized as a form of partial atonement for the underlying crime.  If seen in this way, good-time credits can be justified as a way of recognizing atonement, which seems to me an appropriate objective for the criminal-justice system.

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Segregation and Security for Gay and Transgender Inmates

I posted a few days ago on the Seventh Circuit’s decision on the right of transgender inmates to treatment.  Now, by coincidence, I’ve read a really fascinating new article by Sharon Dolovich about the segregation of gay and transgender inmates in the Los Angeles County Jail (“Strategic Segregation in the Modern Prison,” 48 Am. Crim. L. Rev. 1 (2011)).  What’s the connection?  An important question in the Seventh Circuit litigation was whether hormonal treatment, which would give transgender inmates a more feminine appearance, would make them more likely to be victimized.  However, Dolovich’s bleak account of the culture of “hypermasculinity” and sexual victimization in prison suggests that transgender (and, for that matter, gay, youthful, and physically weak) inmates are already coded as feminine and targeted for victimization — it’s hard to imagine that hormone-driven changes in appearance are likely to make matters much worse.

Dolovich’s article focuses on LA’s unique K6G Unit, which is intended to provide a safe haven for gay inmates.  She has conducted extensive interviews and other empirical research in order to evaluate K6G.  It appears that the unit does make a large, positive difference in the lives of those who are admitted to it.  Indeed, perhaps the strongest evidence of the relative safety of the unit is that many straight inmates have risked the stigma of homosexuality in order to try to fool jail officials into letting them in.

But, as Dolovich also points out, it is quite troubling to see jail officials systematically segregating a population that has a long history of social marginalization.   (more…)

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