The way we talk about prisons

Mike Konczal’s piece from the WaPo linking the economy with declines in the prison population caught my eye, too. Rather than echoing Keith’s point about the manifest falsity – or methodological futility, for that matter – of establishing the association, I’ll highlight a different aspect of the story.

In the five years since the economy tanked, there’s been a recognisable shift in the way people talk about justice policy. The Urban Institute’s John Roman put together a nifty graphic that illustrates how the policy recommendations of various interest groups have aligned in light of recent fiscal instability.

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The graphic itself is an intentional over-simplification in two respects. Firstly, it glosses over important disagreements within the various factions. For example, Jerry Brown’s repeatedly petulant efforts to vacate the CDCR’s receivership attests to the internecine struggles playing out in Californian justice policy. Secondly, it’s a crude characterisation of each faction’s policy imperative. For example, I think the reason Democrats argue for reductions in the prison population has less to do with “Prevention” than with dignity, and I think Republicans are more interested in reducing the prison population for financial reasons than any appeal to sensibilities about ‘principles of least governance’. But the main point of the graphic still stands: the ways that various interest groups talk about justice policy have, for the most part, begun to show striking similarities.

The convergence is especially significant when we look at the history of justice reform discourse. Left-wing reform advocates in the 1970s faded into obscurity once the mainstream successfully framed the left’s efforts as incitements to violent revolution. In response, the left further entrenched its oppositional stance against right-wing justice reform advocates by arguing that the right’s efforts to silence their voice ignited the kindling that fuelled law-and-order policies from the 1970s onwards. The rhetorical adversarialism of the ‘70s bore no resemblance to the way the prisoner’s rights movement has since been accepted nowadays as a mainstream force (for example, look at the nationally positive reception of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow). NGOs and think-tanks from both sides of the aisle now talk about prison reform using similar vocabularies and advocate similar strategies, in a manner that would have been unthinkable one or two decades ago.

It’s the contribution of criminologists in the national conversation, however, that animates my own optimism going forward. With the exception of a handful of names like James Q. Wilson and John DiIulio, criminologists remained largely absent from the policy table since Robert Martinson in 1974.

Again, this is no longer so nowadays. The fallow land that Martinson unwittingly left behind has been assiduously cultivated, and recent years have witnessed a rapprochement between criminologists and correctional administrators. Rehabilitation research (for example, see evidence from North America and Europe) has reached the incontrovertible conclusion that under tightly monitored and well-implemented circumstances, we can drastically improve the life chances available to offenders leaving prison. The place that scientific expertise about rehabilitation occupies in today’s public imagination is far removed from the authoritarian, paternalistic interpretations that were given voice in works from the ’70s by Szasz and others. It is now much more empirically sound, and critically informed. Consequently, criminology is now well situated to make real public policy improvements, in California as elsewhere.

Public policy rhetoric surrounding prisons is thus changing. Mass incarceration is being framed as both a health issue, and with increasing appreciation of felon disenfranchisement, labour exclusion and census bias, it is also framed as a civil rights issue.

Konczal is wrong to worry about whether the economy is a driver of the prison population. But it’s had important implications for the way we talk about prison policy. With a little historical perspective, we can appreciate quite how significant that really is.