Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Sentencing Policy Institute

Doug Berman has a post up at Sentencing Law and Policy hoping that law schools going to a quarter system might free up hours in programs to allow more emphasis on courses, sentencing law and policy. That, of course, is a good idea. But I would take it a step further.

One of the problems with our sentencing policy is how little the legal scholarship is linked to the criminological scholarship is linked to the policy scholarship. As I've noted before, criminology got to the topic before political science or public policy disciplines, and both the latter have pretty much ceded investigation to the former even though corrections and sentencing have such a dramatic impact on public budgets and communities and provide stories of politics and policymaking that rival anything education, health, transportation, etc., as policy subjects can provide. The result is that crim folks really are pretty demonstrably clueless about policy models and literature, and legal scholars are more so about both. Policy gets proposed in law schools without reference to problem definition or program implementation and is not always well informed by crim theory and research, which returns the favor regarding the legal processes and jurisprudence essential to understand how corrections and sentencing policy are grounded. The solution is clearly to go beyond a class on sentencing policy, even one taught by someone as well prepared and qualified as Doug.

What is needed is an organization or program devoted to an integrated and farther-reaching collaboration and investigation of corrections sentencing policy--a Sentencing Policy Institute. The Institute would need faculty and courses devoted to pulling everything together that is now separate (except for occasional and loose coupling at the NASC or other conferences). Just as a start, I'd say you'd need people in sentencing law, public admin and management, public policy, criminal justice, corrections, communications, and data systems management as well as a webmaster for an active web presence and a program developer/manager for production of workshops, conferences, and seminars. (Needless to say, the most important person to hire would be the executive assistant to the chair or director.)

The Institute would need to partner its offerings with other disciplines such as the TECHNOCORRECTIONS fields (pharmaceuticals, bioengineering, and surveillance), gerontology, juvenile justice, business plan modelling, demographics, etc., as well as establishing networks with government agencies like sent commissions, statistical analysis centers, corrections, juvenile, social services, health, etc., and non-profits (both service providers and philanthropies). I'm figuring you could get this started for around $1 m. or so/yr. if the Institute is housed in existing offices on a campus or other government department. Not chump change but certainly not ridiculous, not when OK, a poor state, is spending almost that much just to do an audit of the corrections department and sentencing commission right now. A moneyed donor would go a long way in cementing a valuable legacy after deceasing with a little endowment to get it off the ground and functioning for a year or two until more secure funding could be found.

The Institute's products could include an encompassing website, doing much of what Doug, I, and others have been doing plus linkage to data sets and research. Journals, newsletters, reviews of policy proposals, vocal advocacy of reality and sense in policy debates. IOW, an infrastructure for the kind of do-able corrections sentencing policy that will be needed as hooey and fan keep interacting in a more vibrant, unmistakable, and potentially destructive way in our future policymaking. It's obvious that Berman would be the logical core of the Institute's development and operation, so Ohio State would seem a place to be considered (now that Michigan has apparently stopped offering football as a varsity sport), but the rest of it would be an opportunity to put together a truly impressive combo of the best minds we have on these topics. Kim Hunt comes to mind immediately, but I don't want to insult any of the other really creative and thoughtful practitioners and academics out there. I'd leave that to Doug. OTOH, the great work Bob Weisberg and Kara Dansky have done at the Stanford Law Center sets a precedent for both product and organization that would have to be considered in any model.

This likely to happen? Of course not. It makes too much sense, and someone, some org or gov institution would have to show both imagination and resolve to make it all it could be. If those things were in great supply, we'd never have gotten where we are. Still, if we can dream that schools will start giving sentencing policy the attention it demands in law curricula, why stop there? We need a body of this type. Its success could serve as a model for others to copy and spread. We might actually end up with a knowledge base and an authoritative perspective that would make so much of the nonsense and irreality that feeds so much of our policy so difficult to maintain that we could finally be rid of it except for those Norm/Cliff chats at "Cheers." The first step would be to support Doug's call for the expanded curricula. And then let's see if we can take that further.

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