Monday, October 23, 2006

Truth in Sentencing and the Issue of Evidence

I’ve been on a bit of a kick on many of my posts about evidence-based standards to guide policy decisions. Now this story, which provides an example of policy and evidence.

On Friday the AP ran a story quoting Corrections Department director Jon Ozmint as saying South Carolina's prisons could become more difficult to manage if most inmates are required to serve 85 percent of their sentence (the so-called Truth-in-Sentencing or TIS standard), as proposed.

Mr. Ozmint said that proposal doesn't give inmates any incentive to behave, further arguing that “If split into two groups, the group of inmates that could earn upward of 20 percent off its sentence would be better behaved than a group that could only earn up to 15 percent off.” The state’s attorney general, who proposed a new 85% to-be-served TIS standard disagrees, arguing that sentences in SC don’t mean what they say anymore.

"Eliminating parole will increase the rate of growth in prisons," Mr. Ozmint wrote. "In every state where parole has been eliminated, in whole or in part, this has been demonstrated." The AG spokesman disputed this also, and I must say that I think there is evidence to back Mr. Ozmint in general, but he overplayed his hand.

Growth of prisons and Truth in Sentencing
Now there are many things we know about Truth in Sentencing policies. As to Mr. Ozmint’s second point, the link between TIS and prison growth, it is possible to raise time to be served in prison as a percentage of the sentence and not see an immediate increase - if the announced sentence is adjusted downward to balance things out. The VA Criminal Sentencing Commission, where I once worked, did this by ratcheting down the announced penalties to accommodate the longer time to be served. So he's wrong to say "every" state.

I must admit though that Mr. Ozmint’s more general point is almost surely right, because few states took as careful a scalpel to their policy surgery. In fact, I have no doubt that “Truth in Sentencing” policies nationwide have led to a growth in prison populations, as cited by Blumstein and Beck in this BJS publication. Blumstein and Beck, both highly respected researchers, conclude:
Overall … the growth in prison populations continues, primarily due to increases in the length of time served. Some of the policy questions identified are whether the benefits of incarceration justify the costs compared to the cost- benefits of alternatives to incarceration, and whether incapacitation benefits are worth the costs when time served extends into the age range when criminal behavior declines. Future research will explore the relationship between incarceration policies and crime rates.

The evidence is strong on this general point.

Prison Infractions
But how about Mr. Ozmint’s first point, that TIS will hamper institutional control of inmates. Again, there is some evidence, but I think he is on shaky ground here and would love to see readers supplement my understanding.

This Research Triangle Institute study indicated that NC’s move to TIS (100%, not 85%) led inmates to commit infractions at a higher rate than inmates serving sentences under the previous law. The study was of pretty high quality, it seems to me, but I think one could quibble about their conclusions. For example, can they really control for all the changes going on in NC sentencing and corrections at that time? This is important from a research point of view because the NC sentencing system, held up as a model in many ways, specifically chose to use scarce incarceration resources on the most serious felons, increasing the severe offender mix in its prisons. So one would expect more infractions not because of problems inherent in TIS, but because there are more hard-core offenders in the prison population. Thus, we need more proof than one RTI study to believe these results. The science in evidence-base policy requires replication of results.

In contrast, a New Jersey study expected that the requirement that violent felons serve at least 85 percent of their sentence (NERA policy) would increase prison disciplinary infractions. However, results of qualitative and statistical analysis “did not confirm the [increase in] prison disciplinary infractions.” Comparisons “were made between the rate of incidents of violence committed by NERA-sentenced prisoners versus inmates sentenced before NERA. Results indicate that inmates sentenced under NERA actually committed less disciplinary infractions than did there non-NERA counterparts.”

So the jury is still out on Mr. Ozmint’s contention that prisons will be more difficult to manage. Anybody out there have more on this?

More generally
I’ll let Tom McGee have the last word from an earlier post. Agree or disagree with his views, in his comment to my September post in So You Want to Structure Sentencing? Part III. His is a principled stand on the subject of correctional decisions and based on evidence:

“Judges are not well situated to make decisions about controlling a perpetrator’s risk and decisions about rehabilitation. Both of these kinds of decisions are likely to change, sometimes often, and must be indeterminate….Beyond this, correctional resources are costly and scarce. Decisions about the use of these resources have to be made in such a way that gives priority to those who are most likely to succeed. Judges are not logistically situated to accomplish this task.” Tom suggests a graded deprivation approach, with both determinate and indeterminate elements.

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