Graduated Re-Entry and the Rhetoric of Reaction

This country has about five times as many people in prison and jail (per capita) as it ever had before 1975, and about seven times as many as other economically and socially advanced countries. Unfortunately, and contrary to current myth, most of those people aren’t innocent, and aren’t harmless “NonNonNons.” More than half are currently serving time for a violent offense, and many of the rest have prior convictions involving violence. So we can’t escape the mass incarceration trap by releasing “low-risk” offenders; to get back to a civilized rate of imprisonment, we need to get some seriously guilty people out of cellblocks. The current system of taking someone who is locked up (and fed, clothed, and housed at public expense) one day and turning him loose the next day under sporadic supervision, with $40 and our very best wishes for success in his future endeavors, is obviously idiotic, and the results are predictably rotten.

Angela Hawken, Ross Halperin, and I have proposed an alternative system of early release under tight supervision and with supported transitional work and housing, plus strong incentives – in the form of gradually increasing liberty – to find and hold non-supported employment.  Since nothing precisely like this has been tried before – that’s true of any genuinely original idea – there’s no way to predict precisely what the results would be, but there’s enough data on specific elements of the plan, including the swift-certain-fair approach to sanctioning misconduct and rewarding compliance and achievement, to give us reasonable confidence that some version of “graduated re-entry” would outperform the current system.

Leon Neyfakh at Slate runs the idea past a distinguished criminologist and a leading advocate of decarceration. Their responses illustrate  that the use of  Albert Hirschman’s  “rhetoric of reaction” is not restricted to one side of the political spectrum. Every new idea, Hirschman says, is attacked on three bases: futility, perversity, , and jeopardy. That is, the idea can’t possibly work, will actually have the opposite of its intended effect, and will create appalling risks.

Of course, all of those things might be true about any given proposal – there are a lot more bad new ideas than there are good ones – but they can also serve as mere reflex reactions, designed to cut off debate rather than foster it.

The standard “perversity” argument against more effective community corrections systems is that they will “widen the net”: instead of substituting for incarceration, they will be added on top of incarceration. They are said to be futile on the grounds that punishment has been demonstrated not to work. And the jeopardy is that, since attempts at control are doomed to fail, closer monitoring and more consistent sanctioning will only further entrap offenders in the web of the carceral state.

In fact, properly implemented swift-certain-fair approaches demonstrably succeed in changing behavior, and demonstrably reduce recidivism and days-behind-bars. But the rhetoric of reaction is designed to be fact-proof.

Otherwise it would be hard to figure out how anyone could imagine that a program that starts with people currently in prison and not scheduled to get out would possibly “widen the net.” Obviously, a graduated re-entry program is more restrictive than unconditional release: that’s the whole point. And insofar as we can identify current prisoner who would be good candidates for unconditional release, using graduated re-entry on that population instead of letting them out unconditionally would involve unnecessary expense, unnecessary intrusion, and, yes, the risk that people who would have made it on their own will instead get tripped up in a cycle of technical violation and re-incarceration. But surely there must be some population not safe to simply turn loose but safe enough to turn loose under the right sort of close monitoring. Maybe that population is small, in which case the benefits of graduated re-entry will be limited, though it still might turn out to be true that a phased re-entry will work better than a sudden re-entry.

Here’s my challenge to those who oppose graduated re-entry on the grounds that it’s too tough on offenders: Imagine that you were in prison, or that your son or brother was in prison.  Would you prefer having the next year of that sentence be served in the new “super-min” program, or on a cellblock?  Once you ask the question that way, the answer should be fairly obvious.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

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Mark Kleiman

Mark Kleiman is a professor of public policy at the New York University Marron Institute.