Graduated re-entry and the rhetoric of reaction

Graduated re-entry meets Hirschman’s “rhetoric of reaction.”
Policy analysis starts with “compared to what?”

This country has about five times as many people in prison and jail (per capita) as it ever had before 1975, and about seven times as many as other economically and socially advanced countries. Unfortunately, and contrary to current myth, most of those people aren’t innocent, and aren’t harmless “NonNonNons.” More than half are currently serving time for a violent offense, and many of the rest have prior convictions involving violence. So we can’t escape the mass incarceration trap by releasing “low-risk” offenders; to get back to a civilized rate of imprisonment, we need to get some seriously guilty people out of cellblocks. The current system of taking someone who is locked up (and fed, clothed, and housed at public expense) one day and turning him loose the next day under sporadic supervision, with $40 and our very best wishes for success in his future endeavors, is obviously idiotic, and the results are predictably rotten.

Angela Hawken, Ross Halperin, and I have proposed an alternative system of early release under tight supervision and with supported transitional work and housing, plus strong incentives – in the form of gradually increasing liberty – to find and hold non-supported employment.  Since nothing precisely like this has been tried before – that’s true of any genuinely original idea – there’s no way to predict precisely what the results would be, but there’s enough data on specific elements of the plan, including the swift-certain-fair approach to sanctioning misconduct and rewarding compliance and achievement, to give us reasonable confidence that some version of “graduated re-entry” would outperform the current system.

Leon Neyfakh at Slate runs the idea past a distinguished criminologist and a leading advocate of decarceration. Their responses illustrate  that the use of  Albert Hirschman’s  “rhetoric of reaction” is not restricted to one side of the political spectrum. Every new idea, Hirschman says, is attacked on three bases: futility, perversity, , and jeopardy. That is, the idea can’t possibly work, will actually have the opposite of its intended effect, and will create appalling risks.

Of course, all of those things might be true about any given proposal – there are a lot more bad new ideas than there are good ones – but they can also serve as mere reflex reactions, designed to cut off debate rather than foster it.

The standard “perversity” argument against more effective community corrections systems is that they will “widen the net”: instead of substituting for incarceration, they will be added on top of incarceration. They are said to be futile on the grounds that punishment has been demonstrated not to work. And the jeopardy is that, since attempts at control are doomed to fail, closer monitoring and more consistent sanctioning will only further entrap offenders in the web of the carceral state.

In fact, properly implemented swift-certain-fair approaches demonstrably succeed in changing behavior, and demonstrably reduce recidivism and days-behind-bars. But the rhetoric of reaction is designed to be fact-proof.

Otherwise it would be hard to figure out how anyone could imagine that a program that starts with people currently in prison and not scheduled to get out would possibly “widen the net.” Obviously, a graduated re-entry program is more restrictive than unconditional release: that’s the whole point. And insofar as we can identify current prisoner who would be good candidates for unconditional release, using graduated re-entry on that population instead of letting them out unconditionally would involve unnecessary expense, unnecessary intrusion, and, yes, the risk that people who would have made it on their own will instead get tripped up in a cycle of technical violation and re-incarceration. But surely there must be some population not safe to simply turn loose but safe enough to turn loose under the right sort of close monitoring. Maybe that population is small, in which case the benefits of graduated re-entry will be limited, though it still might turn out to be true that a phased re-entry will work better than a sudden re-entry.

Here’s my challenge to those who oppose graduated re-entry on the grounds that it’s too tough on offenders: Imagine that you were in prison, or that your son or brother was in prison.  Would you prefer having the next year of that sentence be served in the new “super-min” program, or on a cellblock?  Once you ask the question that way, the answer should be fairly obvious.








Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

13 thoughts on “Graduated re-entry and the rhetoric of reaction”

  1. Are you referring to federal or state level? I confess to only knowing one murderer and one attempted murderer, personally, one of whom has been on the lam for 20 years and the other of whom tried to kill his mum as a teen, and thus was out at age 18. Hence the 8 or 10 blokes I know who've done their deuces in the pokey (generally county correctional institutes) have not been violent, but have been guilty as hell. And almost all of them have been sent back, for parole violations that were absolutely non-violent, and victimless. Typically weed or coke in the piss during their bi-weekly visits to their PO. What I don't really understand is how the wisdom of "short sharp shock" has been abandoned. This is roughly equivalent to your swift-certain-fair. You get out of the pokey, you party with your mates, they find blow in your pee, and they send you back to a lock-up for two weeks, every single time. That sounds like short sharp shock swift certain fair. Or maybe force you to do a 30-day rehab stint. But these boys go back in for 6 months to two years, sometimes the parole violation getting a longer sentence than the original drunk driving or embezzlement or check-kiting. Now I know my evidence is anecdotal, but even in liberal Massachusetts, which doesn't have a High-School-To-Prison-For-Black-Teens industry in place like Texas, the state correctional facilities are filled with drunk drivers, tax cheats, deadbeat dads, embezzlers, check-kiters, frauds, etc. Who should all definitely do time. But once they've "paid their debt to society", the lion's share of them then get sent back for weed or blow in their pee, or missing appointments with their PO (probably because they've got weed or pot in their pee). The other common category is domestic abusers, and that's a different kettle of fish — their crime is violent, and alcohol or drug abuse is likely to have them commit it again….whereas a lawyer or accountant is unlikely to get baked at a beach party, and then say, hey, "why don't I embezzle some client funds again!"

    In any case, it seems to me that parole violations serve as an enormous funnel of non-violent offenders back into the prison system. Is this primarily at the state level?

  2. I think it's just an ideological thing for some of them. They really dislike the prison system, really dislike surveillance of prisoners, and just generally sympathize heavily with prisoners and want to believe that most of them would be good if society would just stop being so bad.

    In Gottschalk's case, she has nothing but a begging-the-argument argument – "aren't you just setting them up for failure?" Meanwhile, you have actual RCTs and empirical tests of it that work.

  3. This post makes sense, as far as I can tell. I see no reason why we wouldn't try such a new approach, even if it is more expensive in the short run (which perhaps is not even true, it might just seem true).

    My main reaction though is to ask, do you think we put too many people in prison, or not? Because you seem to be justifying it, which I find interesting. Whereas for me, if someone with a violent history (ie, hurt someone, got caught, got convicted, and served the sentence) then commits a non-violent crime, then sure … maybe they should still go to prison, but on a human level, isn't that progress of a kind?

    Mostly I really just hate violence, in prison and out, and it would be nice if we could significantly cut back. (In my view, on a cultural level, we have never actually tried.) So now I'm left wondering if our culture got more violent, or did we just turn more of a blind eye to violence in the past? (No doubt, if you look only at things like domestic violence, we probably did. No idea how big a chunk that is though.) Maybe you've answered this before, but as a schmoe in the street, this is my reaction to this post — confusion.

  4. I tried posting this question last night, and hasn't appeared; I'll try again on the assumption that it was a glitch, perhaps on my part.

    This doesn't address the main issue of the post, but this seems like a reasonable forum for asking it.

    "More than half are currently serving time for a violent offense, and many of the rest have prior convictions involving violence."

    In light of what (we think) we know about death row, is there any reason we should have more faith in the convictions of those not on death row? That is, just because these people are serving time for a violent offense or have prior convictions involving violence, is that a reasonable reason for us to believe that they actually committed the crimes for which they are in prison?

    1. Not really relevant. When someone is sitting on death row wrongly convicted of murder and is found innocent after all, there has still been a murder with a dead body to go with it. If the case had been solved correctly, you would have a murderer in prison with whom to deal.

      1. I think it's relevant. Are we counting stuff like "resisting arrest" as "violent?" My impression is …. never having been either a male or man of color … that that is what you get if you are a young man of color and you happen to run into some policemen (by no means all) who are having a bad day, and you aren't a model of perfect submissiveness, in the face of who knows what level of incivility (see the bad day part again).

        So, yes I think we'd need to dig deeper on this issue. No I don't have the time either.

        1. Certainly if you assume that the problem Mark describes doesn't exist, then it's indeed easy to solve. There are for example over 100,000 people behind bars for sexual assault charges. If we assume their "victims" are all lying then yes, we should apologize to the accused and let them go, problem solved.

  5. A 2% false conviction rate would mean more than 30,000 prisoners in for something they didn't do. That's a lot of suffering, and a cause worth fighting for. But 98% is still pretty good odds.

    Just two words about non-violent crime: Bernie Madoff.

    1. Both you and KH misunderstood the tenor of my question. As both Keith ("Not really relevant.") and I stated ("This doesn't address the main issue of the post, but this seems like a reasonable forum for asking it."), my question was not directed at the point of the OP. Rather I was asking about the factual content of what seems to be a throwaway line in the OP, one that also does not have much bearing on the policy under discussion.

      Is it the case that most people convicted of violent crimes actually committed those crimes. I am not questioning whether the crimes were committed, nor that someone committed them. Rather, is it the case that police and prosecutors are reasonably accurate in finding the real, true perps? It is not clear to me that the incentives are sufficiently strong with regard to accuracy, given what has come out in the news about "mistakes" made. I was — still am — hoping that one of you will explain to me (and not in the fashion of Ring Lardner (I had always thought this was a Dorothy Parkerism. Thank you www.)) why we should have faith that most people behind bars for violent crimes actually committed those crimes. Is it indeed something like 98%? On what basis do you think so?


    2. As for Bernie Madoff… wasn't it the case that some guy was warning the SEC for about 10 years before anyone actually did anything? If so, then we should put our energy into reforming *that* system. We don't need to use him as a way to browbeat all people who wonder if maybe we could be doing things differently.

      As for me, in addition to prison for violent first offenses, I might add intensive psychotherapy as a condition for anyone who wanted to get out early for non-violent second offenses, maybe in addition to this HOPE business (which, again, I think is worth trying. Jeez.) Even the process of trying to game the therapist would still make people confront themselves, which is what most of us really don't want to do.

  6. The comparison with other countries' incarceration rates is interesting, but it's difficult to know what to make of it in isolation. If we just look at violent offenders, how much of the difference is down to unusually tough sentencing in the US, and how much is it that the US is simply a more violent society (on average) than comparably wealthy countries elsewhere? Have rates of violence diverged in recent decades between the US and other developed countries?

  7. I think graduated re-entry sounds like a cool idea and innovtive proposal…I mean there are so many groups screaming decarcerate..but not too many tangible examples on how to go about it, especially for violent offenders like juvenile lifers who’ve been in since kids and should be looked at at some point for a second chance now that they are aged adults.Where would you begin? I want to know more of how to necome involved in this ground breaking work.,,which state will be the guinea pig

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