Protecting public safety while reducing the prison headcount

Ross Douthat asks the right question about de-carceration: how to do it while protecting public safety. I offer an answer: swift-certain-fair community supervision.

Three things to like about Ross Douthat’s Sunday column on incarceration:

1.  He starts in the right place: the sheer scale and horror of mass incarceration, especially as practiced in this country. (Douthat is right: by any reasonable definition, SuperMax is torture.)

2. He acknowledges the key fact: there aren’t enough harmless prisoners that releasing them would solve the problem. If we want to get to civilized levels of incarceration we need to let out some seriously guilty and possibly dangerous people.  Just to get back to the U.S. historical level – already about 50% above European rates – we would have to let out four out of five current inmates. That means freeing large numbers of armed robbers, rapists, and murderers.

3. And he asks the right question: how to do that without ending our twenty-year winning streak in crime reduction.

Fortunately, I think there’s an answer to that question: learning to manage offenders without putting them behind bars. The key to that – and, it turns out, to de-brutalizing the institutions themselves – is a system of rules and sanctions based on swiftness, certainty, and fairness.

The evidence for success in swift-certain-fair community corrections is pouring in. The next step is to extend it to the currently imprisoned population through some form of graduated re-entry. Since that’s a new idea, we can’t be sure in advance how well it would work, or which version of it would work best in any given population. But once you ask the right question – how to reduce incarceration while improving public safety – you’re well on the road to finding the right answer.

Footnote Douthat makes the implicit assumption that keeping someone who might commit crime behind bars naturally tends to reduce crime. That would be true if incarceration didn’t have criminogenic side-effects, both at the individual-offender level and the community level. But in fact it does, and as the scale of incarceration grows the crime-control benefits shrink (since you’re locking up less and less dangerous prople) while the costs grow. Useem and Piehl estimate that in the median state the marginal prisoner somewhat increases the crime rate. If this is right, then the first slice of de-carceration won’t come at any cost in the form of increased crime even if it’s not coupled with improved community supervision. But that surely wouldn’t be true of making the reductions we actually need to make in the prison headcount.






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:

3 thoughts on “Protecting public safety while reducing the prison headcount”

  1. What happened to the supply-side theory of crime? IIRC this held that opportunity has a major effect on crime. Cars and mobile phones used to be easy to steal and sell. Better car locks, windscreen tattoos, and phone software locks and databases have made these crimes far less attractive. Besides, everybody has a phone already. A priori, the opportunities for drug-related crime are also constrained by the buyers. You can't go back to selling drugs on LA South Side street corners if the corners are already all taken. (You could have a violent conflict for the corner.)

    I'm genuinely curious.

  2. Thank you for reading Douthat so I don't have to.

    Your argument seems extremely sound. (But I would still like to know why we in the US are so much more violent than Western Europe. Neither here nor there I know, but I'm still curious.)

    Also, if we're going to go to all the trouble of basically remaking a person's psychology, perhaps we should put some more effort into prevention. Family and education services. Jobs programs. Anger management. Whatever it takes.

    1. On your first point: The authoritative text is still Zimring & Hawkins (1997) "Crime is not the problem"
      It's been years since I read it, but the take-away is that the US has comparable rates of crime to Western Europe, but crime here is much more lethal. Blame guns.

      On your second point: Yep, you're right, but unfortunately so is Kahneman, so it's unlikely we'll shift from reactive policy-making to preventive policy-making any time soon.

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