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Can America Reduce Its Prison Population?

Publication Date: 
June 21, 2012
Source: 
The Crime Report
Author: 
Ted Gest

Professor Joan Petersilia's keynote address at the National Institute of Justices Annual Conference is quoted in this Crime Report article by Ted Gest regarding what it will take for prison downsizing in the United States to be successful.

The current trend of prison downsizing in the United States may not succeed unless experts can advise policy makers promptly about which non-prison programs for convicts change offender behavior, says criminologist Joan Petersilia of Stanford Law School.

In a keynote address to the National Institute of Justice's annual conference Tuesday in Arlington VA, Petersilia warned that it is not inevitable that the current movement among states to reduce prison populations and close penal institutions will continue.

"We have been here before," Petersilia said.

She recalled that many states adopted intensive probation supervision in the 1980s and 1990s as an alternative to prison, but research results on its effectiveness were disappointing.

"We've got to stop overselling community corrections--and under-delivering," Petersilia said.

She worries that, as in previous decades, prison population totals will moderate or recede in the short run in large part as a way to save government money---but when the economy improves, political leaders will start filling prisons again when they have no proof that non-prison programs worked.

...

The test case for prison reform is Petersilia's home state of California, where the evolving prisoner "realignment" plan is the "biggest criminal justice experiment ever conducted in America," Petersilia says.

Even many Californians are not aware that in the last 18 months, the state's prison population has dropped from 172,000 to 135,000, and the number of parolees has plummeted even more sharply, from 132,000 to 60,000.

While this sounds promising to corrections reformers, Petersilia says it is happening so fast that officials and offenders alike are just beginning to understand the impact.

Many former inmates complain that they have been taken off the parole rolls so quickly that they are losing government benefits that are reserved for parolees. Some are being asked to get back on parole as a result, she says.

...

So far, only 10 percent of that money is going to treatment programs, with the bulk going to sheriff's office, local jails, probations staff, and court services. That bodes ill for keeping ex-inmates from returning to crime, Petersilia says.

"We can't just sit and watch this go off the train track," she told fellow researchers at the NIJ conference.

One hopeful sign, she added, is that public opinion currently supports the idea of putting fewer people behind bars. She cited the popularity of Ohio State University Prof. Michelle Alexander's book "The New Jim Crow" on mass incarceration of blacks.

Petersilia believes that the public will back expenditures of public funds on projects that truly help former prisoners get their lives back together. She has some hope for "social impact bonds," also known as "pay for success," which are contracts with government agencies in which entrepreneurs invest in projects that produce improved social outcomes and save public money.

Initial interest in the concept has been seen in the juvenile justice area, Petersilia says.