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Unlocking America, Why and How to Reduce America’s Prison Population, The JFA Institute, November 2007, 32 pp.

Reviewed by John E. Dannenberg

Unlocking America is a study on how to approach the task of reducing America’s prison population (“decarceration”) without compromising public safety. Key factors recommended to accomplish this include reducing the number of persons sent to prison, shortening the terms of those who are, and decreasing/eliminating returns to custody for technical parole/probation violations. Also recommended is decriminalizing “victimless” crimes such as drug possession.

The study exposes some of the myths surrounding crime and punishment. One is that mass incarceration and recurrent parole/probation violations serve to reduce crime. Another hypothesizes the existence of “career criminals” who can be “‘identified and locked’ up to save society.” Yet another is that tougher penalties will protect the public from “dangerous criminals.” A fourth is that tougher penalties will have a deterrent effect. From the study’s corrections to the myths come ideas on how to change the flawed system - explained in six practical and cost-effective recommendations.

The authors, eight university professors of criminal justice, first review crime rates and the resultant incarceration. The old adage, “the punishment does not fit the crime” is demonstrated by showing examples of gross sentencing inequities. Crime rates for major categories, and their histories over past decades, are related both to victim economic losses and to costs of incarceration. Likewise, statistics are parsed to answer the age-old question of whether prison expansion has in fact cut crime, notwithstanding the embarrassing reality of incarceration’s negative side effects.

Chapter III deals with realistic limits of what one can hope for by using prison-based rehabilitative and treatment programs. The authors research historical parole and probation success rates, analyzing whether “failures” were in fact due to new crimes or just technical violations. While they find that meaningful work, education and self-development programs serve to reduce reincarceration rates from all causes, program success appears limited to those who want to succeed. Thus, these programs only partly aid the goal of reducing prison occupancy.

The ultimate objective, decarceration, devolves from more mechanical actions than just offering opportunities for self-development. Here the authors look at the total costs of managing society, not just the prison tab. For example, they propound that a $1 million investment in gaining high school graduation for otherwise disadvantaged youth will result in a reduction of 258 crimes per year. They also recommend a partnership between business and the community to offer job skills development to aid the underprivileged in gaining a positive start in life.

In making their recommendations, the authors reexamine the maxim, “the punishment should fit the crime.” Highly criticized is the populist notion that mindless retributive punitiveness is justified. The back side of this severe punishment is the general alienation of chronically disadvantaged citizens. And while a common public belief is that courts are too lenient, this sentiment is too often based upon ignorance.

From their analyses, the authors offer a six-point plan to markedly reduce America’s prison population. (1) Reduce the time served in prison. (2) Eliminate technical prison and parole violations. (3) Reduce the length of parole and probation supervision periods. (4) Decriminalize “victimless” crimes related to drug use and abuse. (5) Where incarceration is nonetheless appropriate, humanely improve the conditions of confinement. And finally, (6) when the felon is out, restore his/her voting rights. Concomitantly, efforts should be made to permit licensing in specialties not contraindicated by the commitment offense. For example, there is no valid reason for denying a drug-abuser a contractor’s license.

The report offers pro-active pragmatic solutions to the painful reality that prison costs today - both in dollars and in the misery index - are increasing without bound. The writing style and extensive use of informative graphs make Unlocking America particularly readable by general interest public readers. It is available on PLN’s website. See: Unlocking America, The JFA Institute, 5 Walter Houp Ct. NE, Washington, DC 20002;

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