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”
Over the past few months, on this blog and elsewhere, I’ve been arguing that Wisconsin should consider reinstituting good conduct time for prisoners, which provides for accelerated release based on good behavior behind bars. My writing on this topic is collected here. Earlier this week, Wisconsin Lawyer published my latest piece on GCT. I also did two short videos for Wisconsin Lawyer on GCT: here and here.
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:
Continue reading ““Good Time” in Washington: A Model for 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. Continue reading “Why No “Good Time” in Wisconsin?”
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: Continue reading “Overcoming the Pathologies of Hypermasculinity in Prison”
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: Continue reading “Wisconsin Prisoners, c. 1960”
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.
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. Continue reading “The American Prison in 1931: High Ideals, Harsh Realities”