When Graduated Re-Entry is First-Best, Not Just Second-Best

Megan McArdle defends the Graduated Re-Entry proposal against critics who would prefer to replace prison with nothing, or perhaps with a menu of social services and income supports designed to help offenders straighten out their lives. She does so on “second-best” grounds: even if you were a prison abolitionist in principle, you ought to prefer Graduated Re-Entry to the status quo, and full-on prison abolitionism isn’t politically feasible and probably never will be. In particular, the rhetorical strategy of shifting the blame for crime from criminals to voters (for supporting policies that generate concentrated multi-generational poverty) strikes McArdle as a sure loser.

On the one hand, I agree. Even from the prison-abolitionist stance, Graduated Re-Entry might look like a reasonable second-best option: the best feasible result even if you don’t think its the best imaginable result.  And surely the attempted moral re-framing is unlikely to command majority support outside the cocoon of activists and their academic sympathizers. If some of the abolitionists want to support Graduated Re-Entry faut de mieux, I’m only too happy to have their backing.

And, indeed, a substantial fraction of prison inmates – less than half, I think, but still a very large number of people – and even larger shares of jail inmates and probationers, could benefit from a good leaving-alone on the part of the criminal justice system. As Marty Horn has remarked, “Go, and sin no more” is a sentence of great antiquity with a highly respectable provenance, and we should use it more than we now do, assuming we can manage to reconcile its use with the need to maintain general deterrence and with the just claim of the victim not to have his victimization treated as a triviality beneath official notice.

But that leaves the question of how to handle the hundreds of thousands of people who are now in prison because they did something really, really bad, and who are as likely as not to do the same sort of thing in the future unless something gets in the way. It is not merely “politics” in the pejorative sense of that term that ought to make us care about the victims: both the past victims, who want to know that the crimes committed against them were not merely shrugged off as “boys will be boys,” and the potential future victims who will suffer if nothing arises to convert current offenders into ex-offenders.

Nor is it obvious that immediate and unconditional liberty would serve the long-term interest of today’s prison inmates, though it would surely accord with their current preferences. A substantial number of those inmates have serious drug problems (especially if we count alcohol as a drug, as we surely should). Evidence from swift-certain-fair community corrections programs shows that testing and the threat of swift-certain-fair sanctions way outperforms any drug treatment program – whether the treatment is voluntary or mandated – in terms of actually getting its subjects stably abstinent. (We’re talking about the difference between 20% success and 80% success.) The freedom to pursue the life of a heroin-addicted burglar is not, in fact, an especially valuable freedom to have; as Ron Corbett remarks, in thirty-plus years as a probation officer and probation manager, he never met a happy probationer.

It would suit my prejudices to find that supportive services turned out always to be the best solution to the problem of people leading disordered lives. But, as far as I can tell, that simply is not the case. What Larry Mead calls “supervisory approaches” also have their role. I hate it when Larry is right, since I have a strong distaste for pushing people around. But that distaste isn’t evidence of anything but my upbringing; it doesn’t provide information about the actual likely results of choosing one course of action rather than another. For that sort of information we have to turn to theoretically-driven empirical investigation, and it seems to me those results are mostly in. I’d still prefer, on principle, services to supervision, and by the same token voluntary services to mandated services, where the observable outcomes are comparable. But where supervision clearly does better, I – along with my fellow liberals – need to swallow hard and just try to make the supervision as helpful, and as consistent with the self-respect of the people subjected to it, as possible.

Footnote Swift-certain-fair community corrections tends to be supervision-only. That’s not true of Graduated Re-Entry, which proposes to use the money not being spent on a cell on a mix of heavy-duty supervision and an expensive package of supported housing and transitional (we hope) supported work.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Mark Kleiman

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