When graduated re-entry is first-best, not just second-best

Even if just turning current prisoners loose were politically feasible, it wouldn’t be a good idea.

Megan McArdle defends the Graduated Re-Entry proposal against critics who would prefer to replace prison with nothing, or perhaps with a menu of social services and income supports designed to help offenders straighten out their lives. She does so on “second-best” grounds: even if you were a prison abolitionist in principle, you ought to prefer Graduated Re-Entry to the status quo, and full-on prison abolitionism isn’t politically feasible and probably never will be. In particular, the rhetorical strategy of shifting the blame for crime from criminals to voters (for supporting policies that generate concentrated multi-generational poverty) strikes McArdle as a sure loser.

On the one hand, I agree. Even from the prison-abolitionist stance, Graduated Re-Entry might look like a reasonable second-best option: the best feasible result even if you don’t think its the best imaginable result.  And surely the attempted moral re-framing is unlikely to command majority support outside the cocoon of activists and their academic sympathizers. If some of the abolitionists want to support Graduated Re-Entry faut de mieux, I’m only too happy to have their backing.

And, indeed, a substantial fraction of prison inmates – less than half, I think, but still a very large number of people – and even larger shares of jail inmates and probationers, could benefit from a good leaving-alone on the part of the criminal justice system. As Marty Horn has remarked, “Go, and sin no more” is a sentence of great antiquity with a highly respectable provenance, and we should use it more than we now do, assuming we can manage to reconcile its use with the need to maintain general deterrence and with the just claim of the victim not to have his victimization treated as a triviality beneath official notice.

But that leaves the question of how to handle the hundreds of thousands of people who are now in prison because they did something really, really bad, and who are as likely as not to do the same sort of thing in the future unless something gets in the way. It is not merely “politics” in the pejorative sense of that term that ought to make us care about the victims: both the past victims, who want to know that the crimes committed against them were not merely shrugged off as “boys will be boys,” and the potential future victims who will suffer if nothing arises to convert current offenders into ex-offenders.

Nor is it obvious that immediate and unconditional liberty would serve the long-term interest of today’s prison inmates, though it would surely accord with their current preferences. A substantial number of those inmates have serious drug problems (especially if we count alcohol as a drug, as we surely should). Evidence from swift-certain-fair community corrections programs shows that testing and the threat of swift-certain-fair sanctions way outperforms any drug treatment program – whether the treatment is voluntary or mandated – in terms of actually getting its subjects stably abstinent. (We’re talking about the difference between 20% success and 80% success.) The freedom to pursue the life of a heroin-addicted burglar is not, in fact, an especially valuable freedom to have; as Ron Corbett remarks, in thirty-plus years as a probation officer and probation manager, he never met a happy probationer.

It would suit my prejudices to find that supportive services turned out always to be the best solution to the problem of people leading disordered lives. But, as far as I can tell, that simply is not the case. What Larry Mead calls “supervisory approaches” also have their role. I hate it when Larry is right, since I have a strong distaste for pushing people around. But that distaste isn’t evidence of anything but my upbringing; it doesn’t provide information about the actual likely results of choosing one course of action rather than another. For that sort of information we have to turn to theoretically-driven empirical investigation, and it seems to me those results are mostly in. I’d still prefer, on principle, services to supervision, and by the same token voluntary services to mandated services, where the observable outcomes are comparable. But where supervision clearly does better, I – along with my fellow liberals – need to swallow hard and just try to make the supervision as helpful, and as consistent with the self-respect of the people subjected to it, as possible.

Footnote Swift-certain-fair community corrections tends to be supervision-only. That’s not true of Graduated Re-Entry, which proposes to  use the money not being spent on a cell on a mix of heavy-duty supervision and an expensive package of supported housing and transitional (we hope) supported work.






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: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

2 thoughts on “When graduated re-entry is first-best, not just second-best”

  1. It seems to me that some level of supervision is going to be necessary for the same reason that we have schools instead of huge free-choice library/playground/laboratories, or that directly-observed therapy for TB and other illnesses makes a huge difference in outcomes. Even if the people under supervision had the best intentions in the world, they have many other demands on their time and attention, a demonstrated deficit in skills and habits, and an imposed lack of practice in living a conventional-ish life. Just offering services, initially at least, would seem to be missing a point.

  2. (Comment by NCGatSmFcts on 2015/04/01 at 11:28 am, misposted on the next thread, moved here by JW)

    In theory I think this idea could work, although unfortunately I think the American public is too cheap to ever do something like this. (I don't see how private apartments plus strict supervision is going to come out cheaper than prison, expensive as it is — unless you house them all in Detroit?) Even if it could come out a little cheaper, it is still going to seem riskier to people. But again — if we actually tried it, if you had the right people doing it, maybe it could work.

    I realize though that I am interested in the philosophy behind it, because I don't know what Mark's theory of human motivation(s) is(are). Heck, if we're going to say that it takes housing and food and personal security and a job* for people to behave well — and I'd sign on to that — one wonders why we didn't do it *in the first place* and a huge chunk of these folk *might* never have been criminals at all. But this leaves out what to me is the biggest part of the enchilada — the family background, the personality, the temperament, the provocation, the ***motivation.*** It can't all just be about impulse control (can it?) (*Btw … there is going to be a huge stigma problem with the job. No one will let you give these folk a decent job — because try getting one even without a record!!! Just try. Honestly. Stigma is a real thing, and a real problem. Not saying the idea is garbage, just saying.)

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