26 December 2011

Let 'em Go: Early Release from Prison

Sentencing is where philosophy meets fiscality. The fiscal part is that which is impossible to get around. At least for the States, which cannot just print more money, there will always be scarce resources beyond which they cannot afford to lock more people up and throw away the key or to provide programs to reform those who have broken the law.

Two Schools of Thought

The philosophical realm is where the fighting takes place. There are basically two sects. The first views the criminal as someone who should be punished. This view tends to conceptualize the criminal as an individual actor who makes moral choices for which he must be made to suffer consequences. The second views the criminal as someone who should be fixed. This view tends to see criminals as members of a community which has let the criminal down (and thus led him to develop anti-social behavioral characteristics) and which will be damaged by the individual's punishment.

Of course, neither side is entirely correct, but the punishment view has had the most influence over the last thirty years or so. This is in large part because the citizenry understands and approves of the punishment model. Citizens tend to believe in punishment for criminal acts. They understand that a criminal is incapacitated and cannot commit crimes while in prison. They believe that when someone is significantly punished and his buddies/family/neighbors hear about it that it will lesson the probability that the buddies/family/neighbors will commit crime. They are dubious that coddling wrongdoers will cause them to see the error of their ways and seek a life beneficial to society. Politicians, beholden to their constituents, have voted in laws which reflect these views.

Nevertheless, the reform the troubled criminals theme has never gone away completely. This is because, at core, it is the more hopeful way of seeing the world. If only we did X and Y we would fix these men so that they would never break the law again. The problem is that, while it may reflect the better parts of our nature, it doesn't reflect reality. Still, for at least the last decade we have allowed our better natures to allow things like drug courts and DUI courts to come into being. Usually, these reform programs come about as a push for a criminal reform program cloaked under the claims of fiscal responsibility. If it costs $A to put Criminal in jail for a year, a year in drug court costs $B, and $A > $B, then it makes sense to put worthwhile cases in drug court.

However, the push for fiscal responsibility can only carry the rehabilitation movement so far. How far can be seen in the cases Professor Klingele discusses in "The Early Demise of Early Release." States have attempted, mostly for fiscal reasons, to adopt early release programs for inmates who are deemed at low risk to break the law if released. These have been rebuffed as "illegitimate changes in the underlying sentence." In other words, changing the sentence of a convict is a lie to the citizenry.

Nevertheless, Professor Klingele pushes forward with suggestions as to how early release programs can be brought into existence and strengthened. It is a difficult argument to make and Ms. Klingele's valiant attempts swim upstream against a strong current springing from the failure of indeterminate sentencing.

What Professor Klingele is Arguing Against

Indeterminate sentencing is the procedure of setting a maximum possible sentence, but not setting a specific sentence. The indeterminate sentencing system with which most people are familiar with is the parole system which held sway in the United States until late in the 20th century. The idea behind parole was a medical treatment model for inmates: with proper treatment they could be returned to society rehabilitated into proper members of society. Eventually, this model came to be seen as a failure and it was swept away in most States by "truth in sentencing" laws. TIS laws were put in place in the majority of States in the latter part of the 20th century. They changed the laws so that a defendant would serve the time he was sentenced to serve instead of whatever fraction of that time he would have done under the parole system. So, instead of getting a sentence of 5 years with the Department of Corrections deciding when to release the inmate at any time after he served 33% of his sentence, the defendant sentenced to 5 years would serve 5 years.

This came about because of a perception that rehabilitation efforts had been failures and that convicts were receiving appropriate punishments, but not being required to actually serve them. Parole embodies the hope that exemplary prisoners can be "fixed" and released to go forth and lead productive lives. However, the public viewed it more as a revolving door on the prison. In reality, the public's view was probably closer to reality. Departments of Correction were not going to be able distinguish between the thousands of offenders they dealt with and offenders got dumped back out on the street as soon as possible, unless they were particularly bad while in prison. This ended with TIS.

TIS was followed by Victims' Rights legislation. This was meant to counter the perception that courts were overly worried about the criminals at the expense of the victims. Victims were to be allowed access to courts and have their experience be taken into account. This type of legislation is clearly an indicator that the citizenry wanted an appropriate punishment model - not a rehabilitative model.

Interspersed with this has been a tendency of legislators to pass mandatory, non-suspendable punishments for certain offenses or multiple convictions of certain offenses. These have been applied to felons possessing firearms, the possession of firearms and drugs at the same time, driving under the influence of alcohol, and three strikes laws. Here is found the trifecta of purposes for incarceration: punishment, incapacitation, and a warning to others who might offend.

Why Early Release Has Not Worked

Professor Klingele cites three reasons for the failures of early release. The first is financial constraints which limit the money which can be spent reintegrating prisoners into society. The second is political impediments to early release. The third is the fact that the moral values of the citizenry are such that they believe a person sentenced to 5 years should serve 5 years. Personally, I agree with her on the second and third points. As to the first point, I think this is a failure of the criminal justice system generally and not particular to early release prisoners.

What to Look for in Future Early Release Programs

Professor Klingele next looks to what should be considered in future programs. First she wants honesty in assessing whether an inmate will re-offend. She wants violent and sexual offenders to be considered on the same plain as lesser offenders because it is clear that in some cases the inmate who has committed the worse crime is less likely to re-offend. Next she calls for clarity, reasoning that if participants in the legal system act tough on crime up front and then try to sneak inmates out the back door of the prison that people will get upset. Finally, she urges those who want to reduce sentences because they view them as overlong and therefore unjust to stop arguing through strawmen (like saving money or reducing recidivism) and instead argue that the sentences are overlong and unjust.


More in the next few days . . . 

No comments: