Criminal Justice Reform is Alive and Well

Max Ehrenfreund reads the eulogy for criminal justice reform in America:

The right-left alliance on criminal justice seems to be breaking apart. Sentencing reform is stalled in the Senate. Conservative commentators are pronouncing ominously about a phantom crime wave. Donald Trump’s old-fashioned, tough-on-crime presidential campaign is a smashing success.

In fact, there was never much of a consensus to begin with.

It’s a cliche to suggest that someone in Washington get outside the D.C. bubble and see what’s really going on in the country. Nonetheless, that’s my advice for Ehrenfreund. I just spent two days in Big Sky, Montana at the first 24/7 sobriety summit. Eight state attorneys general attended in person and 30 more sent representatives. Because criminal justice is primarily a state rather than federal matter, what these men and women think matters infinitely more for reform than what the people Ehrenfreund cites think (e.g., Donald Trump, whom I only heard mentioned here as a punchline).

Mostly, people attended to talk about 24/7 sobriety, a management strategy for alcohol-involved offenders that reduces crime, problem drinking and incarceration. Those who had adopted it shared lessons learned, others came because they want to try the same thing in their state and need advice and information.

Turning to broader reform issues, we also heard a terrific talk by Jim Seward, chief counsel to Governor Dennis Daugaard, about South Dakota’s massive 2013 criminal jusicet reform. The state changed criminal penalties, invested in alternatives to incarceration, boosted mental health and addiction services, and invested in re-entry services for released prisoners. At the the time they were projected to see their prison population increase by 25% over the next 10 years, and Pew Foundation projected the reforms would reduce the growth to only 6% (i.e., less than overall population growth). We learned from Jim that even this encouraging projection was too pessimistic: South Dakota’s prison population is going down.

Governor Daugaard was re-elected by a huge margin and is now one of the most popular governors in the country. That says a lot about where American voters are right now on criminal justice reform, including in conservative states.

I leave Big Sky this morning with optimism in my heart about criminal justice reform in America, no matter how many people say they are going to vote for a guy with a hairdo that ought to be a felony.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. He served as a senior policy advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2009 to 2010.