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Op-Ed: America On Probation

Publication Date: 
January 26, 2014
The New York Times - Opinion Pages
Bill Keller

Professor Joan Petersilia is quoted in a New York Times op-ed on imprecise and ineffective measures taken toward prison reform.

In recent years Americans have begun to wise up to the idea that our overstuffed prisons are a shameful waste of lives and money. Lawmakers have recoiled from the high price of mass incarceration (the annual per-inmate cost of prison approaches the tuition at a good college) and some have recognized that our prisons feed a pathological cycle of poverty, community dysfunction, crime and hopelessness. As crime rates have dropped, the public has registered support for reforms that would have fewer nonviolent offenders languishing in prison. For three years in a row, the population of America’s prisons has inched down; 13 states closed prisons last year. Efforts to fix the perpetual misery machine that is our criminal justice system have won support not only from progressives and academics but from conservatives (both fiscal and evangelical), from enlightened law enforcement groups, from business and even from advocates for crime victims.


Although the government has stepped up evaluation of all these programs (see the National Institute of Justice’s impressive website), most of the evidence is still tentative. Joan Petersilia of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center, who is monitoring California’s wild experiment in prison downsizing, says the reform movement has been hampered by a lack of rigorous science — and by public impatience. To know what works, she said, “We have to stay the course, and we never do in criminal justice policy.” Sooner or later crime ticks back up, and, she said, “When fear gets in the American public, they will pay anything for prisons.”