Toward a Post-Prison Society
“The Outpatient Prison” by Mark A. R. Kleiman, in The American Interest, March–April 2010.
The United States has a remarkable total of 1.7 million criminals behind bars, but that’s nothing compared with the number who are on probation (4.3 million) and parole (700,000). More people go to jail each year for violating such “community supervision” than for committing fresh crimes—and the same group also accounts for a large share of the new crimes.
In 2005, Steven Alm, a judge on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, concluded that there must be a better way. Tired of hearing probation revocation cases only after the offenders had repeatedly failed to show up for meetings and drug tests without suffering any consequences, he demanded that officers act on the first violation. But the caseload is too big for that to be feasible. In fact, the entire U.S. “community corrections” system is swamped, writes Mark A. R. Kleiman, a professor of public policy at UCLA. As a result, not only do criminals on parole or probation get away with a lot, but, because of the lax supervision, they get no clear signals about what constitutes going too far—so inevitably that’s what many do, winding up in courtrooms such as Alm’s. Yet one of the most important things we know about using punishment as a deterrent, according to Kleiman, is that its severity is not nearly as important as its “swiftness and certainty.”
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