Speaking of prison, a few years ago I reviewed
a book by Michael Jacobson, a former corrections commissioner for New York City, who argued that one of the easiest (and politically realistic) ways to downsize prisons was simply to fix the parole system. That argument still makes a lot of sense to me. A 2002 Justice Department study
on recidivism found that 52 percent of criminals end up back in prison after three years, and of those, over half are sent back not for committing real crimes, but merely for technical violations
of their parole. Most parole officers are under-funded and overworked, and it's easier (and safer) simply to send violators back to prison.
Angela Hawken and Mark Kleiman reported
on a variation of this theme in TAP
a few months ago, discussing a new probation program for drug users in Hawaii that "cuts recidivism and curbs [the flow of probationers] to over-crowded jails and prisons." The idea is that quick, mild sanctions for probationers work better than sporadic, draconian punishments. It's not an ultraliberal program (that
label goes to the treatment-diversion program passed in 2001), but the early reports are encouraging. It does require more money upfront--to pay for the extra probation officers--but saves money in the long run.
I'm not sure we'll see more than scattered efforts along these lines, though. There have been a few stories
lately about how even conservative Republicans are now thinking about ways to reduce the U.S. prison population. And a Pew survey in 2005 suggested that crime had largely disappeared as a top voter concern, suggesting the frenzy has subsided (or found other targets). But progress seemed more likely a few years ago, when state deficits were exploding, and that momentum seems to have waned. Jacobson points out that many governors can unilaterally change their states' parole policies, so that seems like the most fruitful path, but the trouble is that all it takes are one or two high-profile crimes by parolees and, voila, reform is dead.