Monday, September 26, 2011

Sensitive About Sentencing Reform

“Maybe I’m too sensitive or else I’m getting soft,” Bob Dylan worried in a 1970s song lyric.

Tonight, I turned this line on myself when I reread an essay that seemed to imply that to call for radical reductions in America’s bloated prison system is to engage in naïve, short-sighted thinking.

In their essay in a special issue of Daedalus on mass incarceration, Robert Weisberg and Joan Petersilia warn of the “dangers of Pyrrhic victories” against it. They acknowledge that America’s incarceration levels make today’s prison system an outrageous outlier both historically and internationally. But they caution that trying to bring down the preposterously high number too fast too soon might be counterproductive.

Weisberg and Petersilia are concerned that reductions in the prison population must be accompanied by a sustained commitment to addressing the causes of recidivism. In practical terms, that means more probation officers, more drug treatment counselors, and so on.

Without these resources, Weisberg and Petersilia fear, a boomlet in new crime by released inmates could occur. And that, in turn, could prompt a visceral policy backlash. Lock ‘em up and throw away the key revividus.

I’m sensitive about this because I interpreted Weisberg and Petersilia to be saying that idealistic citizen-bloggers like me tend to be too naïve. We can let our passion blur our vision and fail to see the full strategic picture involved in systematic sentencing reform.

Am I being too sensitive in suspecting that the two veteran corrections scholars would dismiss this blog as superficial and sentimental? Maybe.

I take heart, however, from the point Glenn Loury makes in his concluding essay in the Daedalus special issue. Loury points out that leaving the decisions about corrections policy to self-appointed experts has had devastating effects on local communities and civic engagement.

To be sure, experts have important roles to play in reshaping sentencing and corrections policy. But if this country is a democracy, so do citizens.

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