Criminal Justice Reform is Alive and Well

Max Ehrenfreund reads the eulogy for criminal justice reform in America:

The right-left alliance on criminal justice seems to be breaking apart. Sentencing reform is stalled in the Senate. Conservative commentators are pronouncing ominously about a phantom crime wave. Donald Trump’s old-fashioned, tough-on-crime presidential campaign is a smashing success.

In fact, there was never much of a consensus to begin with.

It’s a cliché to suggest that someone in Washington get outside the D.C. bubble and see what’s really going on in the country. Nonetheless, that’s my respectful suggestion to Ehrenfreund. I just spent two days in Big Sky, Montana at the first 24/7 sobriety summit. Eight state attorneys general attended in person and 30 more sent representatives. Because criminal justice is primarily a state rather than federal matter, what these men and women think matters infinitely more for reform than what the people Ehrenfreund cites think (e.g., Donald Trump, whom I only heard mentioned here as a punchline).

Mostly, people attended to talk about 24/7 sobriety, a management strategy for alcohol-involved offenders that reduces crime, problem drinking and incarceration. Those who had adopted it shared lessons learned, others came because they want to try the same thing in their state and need advice and information.

Turning to broader reform issues, we also heard a terrific talk by Jim Seward, chief counsel to Governor Dennis Daugaard, about South Dakota’s massive 2013 criminal jusicet reform. The state changed criminal penalties, invested in alternatives to incarceration, boosted mental health and addiction services, and invested in re-entry services for released prisoners. At the the time they were projected to see their prison population increase by 25% over the next 10 years, and Pew Foundation projected the reforms would reduce the growth to only 6% (i.e., less than overall population growth). We learned from Jim that even this encouraging projection was too pessimistic: South Dakota’s prison population is going down.

Governor Daugaard was re-elected by a huge margin and is now one of the most popular governors in the country. That says a lot about where American voters are right now on criminal justice reform, including in conservative states.

I leave Big Sky this morning with optimism in my heart about criminal justice reform in America, no matter how many people say they are going to vote for a guy with a hairdo that ought to be a felony.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

3 thoughts on “Criminal Justice Reform is Alive and Well”

  1. The shift is real and heartening. But there is still a very long way to go before the USA rejoins the rest of the world – let alone the rest of the advanced world – in its level of incarceration. Ta-Nehisi Coates has written a fine long essay on black incarceration, using the career of Daniel Moynihan as a frame. One fact that struck me is the record of Martin O'Malley, the former two-term governor of Maryland running unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination as a more progressive alternative to Hillary Clinton. As governor, he approved none of the recommendations for parole for 60-year-old lifers made by his parsimonious Parole Commission until 2011. Then the legislature changed the system to require a positive veto, which he exercised on “nearly every recommendation” after that. Coates unfortunately does not give the number.

    You can get the list of prison populations by country here. At first sight there is no pattern. Top 10 by absolute number, in order: USA, China, Russia, Brazil, India, Thailand, Mexico, Iran, Turkey, Indonesia. Top 10 by rate, excluding small islands: USA, Turkmenistan, Cuba, Rwanda, El Salvador, Thailand, Russia, Panama, Belarus, Lithuania. (The high rates in so many small Caribbean islands are curious.) The US is in pretty seedy company.

  2. Here in LA county, our DA just started an in-house post conviction review (like an Innocence Project I guess), which is a very good thing. And the city police force is phasing in cameras too. There is some minor skirmishing with the ACLU local about who gets and when there will be access to the "film," but I expect these will get ironed out. Things could be much worse. Crime rate boost is a puzzle, also since the city PD has changed some categorizing.

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