Thursday, January 5, 2012
For the first time in forty years, the national incarceration rate is flattening out, even falling in state prisons. For the first time in three decades, the number of adults under any kind of correctional supervision — in prison or jail or on probation or parole — fell in 2009. At the same time, legal reforms that might have seemed impossible in prior years have increasingly been adopted, reducing penalties for certain crimes, eliminating mandatory sentencing for others, and increasing expenditures for reintegration of prisoners into society. And racial disparities, a persistent and deep-rooted problem in the American criminal justice system, after rising for decades, have begun to drop from their highest levels.
This essay examines these trends and asks what might be done to accelerate them. I survey the reforms that states and Congress have adopted and look at the interplay of such reforms with the historic racial disparities that have characterized the criminal justice system. I then speculate about the forces that have contributed to these developments, including drops in crime rates, budget pressures, and, paradoxically, the war on terror.
We still have a long way to go. If we are to reduce incarceration in any significant measure, it is essential that legislatures (1) authorize more non-incarceration responses to low-level crimes, especially drug offenses; (2) shorten sentences substantially for crimes generally, to bring them more in line with those of other industrialized nations; and (3) invest in inner-city communities where children face the biggest barriers to achieving law-abiding, productive careers. In the essay’s final section, I discuss strategies that might encourage such developments.