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Will The U.S. Ever Scale Back Mass Incarceration?

Over more than four decades, the United States has built a system of mass incarceration, with 1.9 million people in prisons, jails and other corrections facilities at a cost of at least $182 billion a year, says the Prison Policy Initiative.

The numbers have declined somewhat in recent years, but not so dramatically as has the nation's crime rate since the 1990s.

Critics have long contended that average prison sentences are too long and the prosecution system is too harsh, making it difficult significantly to reduce the population behind bars.

How can the U.S. stem the seemingly permanent large numbers in prisons and jails?

That is the subject of a new book published this week by Columbia University Press, Excessive Punishment: How The Justice System Creates Mass Incarceration.

It includes 38 essays by criminal justice experts, including some by people who have served time themselves, collected by Lauren-Brooke Eisen of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School.

At a panel discussion this week sponsored by the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco, Eisen said, "We have to reimagine our justice system" because the punishments being imposed are "disproportionate to the harms caused" by crime.

Eisen expressed the fear that in the current political climate, some states are adopting "regressive policies" that are "turning back on criminal justice reform." She contended that there are "so many other ways to reduce crime" than sending more defendants to prisons and jails.

Presiding at the discussion was retired Judge LaDoris Cordell of northern California's Santa Clara County, who retired from the bench partly to leave what she called the "punitive legal system."

Panelists suggested a number of ways to ease the problems caused by mass incarceration, ranging from improving in-prison rehab programs so that released inmates can earn a "livable wage," to providing the justice system more resources so that defendants who choose to take their cases to trial do not get tougher sentences

As it is, nearly all criminal cases are resolved by plea bargains, and Cordell recalled a judge telling defendants, "if you go to trial, I'll throw the book at you."

Some speakers, citing the ousters or opposition to "progressive prosecutors" in several places, worried that, as Cordell put it, the pendulum for criminal justice reform is "swinging back the other way."

In the book, law Prof. David Sklansky of Stanford University says that, "Decades of research have failed to show any beneficial effect of long U.S. prison sentences on public safety. What is certain is

that they destroy lives, tear apart families, hollow out communities, and wreck state budgets."

Eisen maintains that federal funding for state and local anticrime programs is part of the problem, saying that it has "fueled local criminal justice policy in ways that have resulted in more arrests, more incarceration or probation, harsher sentencing laws, and more contacts with the criminal justice

legal apparatus."

However, Ed Chung of the Vera Institute of Justice, cites positive elements of federal funding. He says, "the most robust dedicated funding to transform the criminal justice system is the Second Chance Act, which has appropriated around $1 billion in grants to support reentry efforts since it was enacted more than fifteen

years ago."

Chung adds, "Today, reentry is one of the most popular, bipartisan, and effective areas of justice reform and championed by a variety of social sectors such as educational institutions, community groups, the business community, sports and entertainment."

The book covers many other criminal justice subjects, including prison reform, juvenile justice, probation and parole and systemic racism.

In a concluding chapter, Jeremy Travis and Bruce Western of the Columbia University Justice Lab say, "We recognize that the road to dismantling systems of injustice is long and that progress is not linear. We also believe that dismantling the sturdy architecture of punitive excess will require more than marginal reforms. The statue needs to be taken from its pedestal, melted down, and recast as something new."


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A daily report co-sponsored by Arizona State University, Criminal Justice Journalists, and the National Criminal Justice Association

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