Monday, May 07, 2007

Plan B

I think it's pretty obvious after what happened in CA recently that serious efforts to reform prison pop demands on the rest of criminal justice and on the other vital public services will always be at risk simply because "more cells" is our default position in corr sent policy. I won't rehash the problems that poses for actually maxing out public safety and minimizing victimization. We've beaten that horse to death with no effect. What I would like to do here is to see if we can start a dialogue on what the actual alternatives are and how we can make their greater public value more acceptable to policymakers and the public. IOW, what's Plan B if commissions and guidelines can't break through, as they look to have stalled and very likely failed in CA? What underlying narratives can drive the legitimacy of alternatives to counter the false but bought "prison is tough on crime" narrative that bases the "more prisons" default?

I can think of three options that we've discussed here. The first is the old reliable "more sentencing and treatment options," which is very viable practically (as the successes of VA, NC, MN, and others show), especially if coupled with very good sentencing data that can shine light on sentences that don't have the same payoffs in public safety as others. The second is the far less common "allocate capped state funds to local jurisdictions for spending on state services and let them keep the savings each year" option, aka HMOs for crim just. I think making people actually pay for their decisions, unlike the system we have now, would force more serious local consideration of sentences, but you think HMOs are unpopular??? The third is my standard TECHNOCORRECTIONS--moving toward more pharmaceutical and genetic management of the neurochemicals that influence so much addictive and/or impulsive behavior for substance abusers, violent, or sex offenders, married if necessary to more high tech tracking and surveillance. Of the three, I think TECHNO is the only one with an underlying narrative that would seem punitive and denying of freedom enough to buy public acceptance, much as boot camps with their lesser duration nevertheless captured support simply because the public could picture that actual hardship was being inflicted.

But what do you think? The CA's and others we document here almost daily aren't solving their problems simply by building more cells in the short term. They're going to need other ideas. I know my pleas to get some conversation going here have fallen short of expectations (mine anyway), but this is important. What else is there to offer? How can we offer what we have better? Are we really caught in this draining cycle until all this country is the leader in is prison beds while everything else we should be investing in declines? Help an old, tired man out here.


Tom McGee said...

I believe we should be realistic about human nature. To the extent that sentencing decision-makers have any discretion, all of the State’s correctional objectives will be reflected in their decisions, at least to some extent. So what we should do is deconstruct the system, putting each of these objectives on the table in each case. Structure the system so that decision-makers must deal with them separately when setting priorities, explicitly taking the costs and benefits of each into consideration. Complete transparency is the best antidote for bad choices and sentencing double-talk.

JSN said...

What I think are correctional objectives are;
1) retribution which is easy
2) rehabilitation which works part of the time and
3) restoration which works part of the time and is seldom used.

In my view the proof that the objectives have been achieved is if the subject abstains from criminal activity which means we have about a 30% to 40% success rate for the more serious offenders who are sent to prison and a much higher rate for the offenders who successfully complete probation.

What I would like to see is a more rigorously supervised probation for drug and property crimes with alcohol and drug abuse treatment and aftercare (which most experts think is essential) for offenders who would otherwise be given short prison sentences (less than five years).

Michael Connelly said...

Thank you guys for the feedback. What kind of narrative do you think it will take for these sorts of approaches to overcome the dominant default called "prisons stop crime best"?

JSN said...

I think that a lot more people than the Bar Association think that incarceration is overused. The legislators know that the "soft-on-crime" card an an effective election tactic and both parties use it. If we can't come up with an effective response to that tactic I am not optimistic.

We did have one race where the use of that tactic by the GOP Central Committee backfired their candidate became an independent (he and his opponent had agreed to avoid personal attacks) and he thought the Central Committee had stabbed him in the back.

Tom McGee said...

Of course, in some cases prisons do stop crime best. In others, stopping crime is not the prime objective. The bottom line is that sentencing is a complex, time-consuming task that is dependent upon consciously processing huge amounts of information. Yet, cognitive scientists tell us that people can only process three to seven or eight pieces of information at the same time. Faced with computation overload and limited time, decision-makers rely on heuristics to simplify their task. Default, oversimplified, biased sentences are often the result.

A sentence is the deprivation module in an individualized correction plan. Each sentence has several components such as warning enforcement, accountability, risk control, and risk reduction.

I believe we should try to teach people how to think about threatening situations for sentencing purposes. This involves breaking the task into bit-sized pieces. First the problem has to be deconstructed, thereby identifying all of the provocations to which the State must respond, namely: (1) the subject’s conduct was a crime, (2) the subject’s crime was an offense, and (3) the subject is a criminal offender. Second, the State’s responses to each of these provocations should be detailed, based upon guidelines. Finally, the sentence components derived from this process must be assembled, nesting the less restrictive components inside of the more restrictive components. In this way, all of the State’s sentencing objectives can be met.

A system like this is not ideological. It has a place for all of the State’s sentencing objectives, plus their related strategies and tactics. Hopefully reason will trump bias and oversimplification, when they are combined within a coherent sentencing framework.