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Notes from the Sentencing Commission Symposium


The United States Sentencing Commission symposium on alternative sentencing began yesterday and continues today. I participated in a panel yesterday and was able to attend part of that day's sessions. The commission is having the proceedings transcribed by actual court reporters (nice to be in judicial branch and have access to that resource), and I am told the full transcripts will be on the web site eventually. That is unique for a symposium of this kind, in my experience. Another innovation was to put the speakers' materials on a CD for the participants. Those of us who travel without checked luggage are grateful. One time I had to mail my conference materials back, as they wouldn't fit in my carry-on.

The opening plenary sessions included some talks on "what works," i.e., reduces recidivism. Unfortunately, the speakers' statements as to what works were necessarily conclusory and in some cases seemed to contradict each other. It will be necessary to get the full papers and check the references to untangle this.

The fellow from the Sentencing Project said what the Sentencing Project always says. Incarceration is a total failure. It doesn't reduce crime at all. It is the monster that is swallowing state budgets whole, yada, yada, yada.

I pointed out that the other side's own best experts credit incarceration with 27% of the crime drop of the 90s, with a major savings in human suffering, a point I have noted before on this blog. I further noted that, according the National Association of State Budget Officers, the corrections share of total state spending hasn't increased at all in the last 12 fiscal years.

I attended the session on electronic monitoring, which I consider one of the most promising alternatives. I would feel better about a burglar being out of prison if he knows that we know where he is every minute of every day. Unfortunately, there are still technical difficulties that preclude such full information. There are "dead zones," such as subways, where an offender can go and slip off the monitor with no way for us to know.

Overall, a worthwhile symposium. Wish I could have attended more of it.


Kent, who are your "side's" best experts, and what portion of recent crime reduction do they think prisons accounted for? The 27% number, if I'm not mistaken, comes from Bill Spelman (who I know personally - we're both in Austin and he's a former city council member). I hardly consider him anti-incarceration. I'm unaware of any valid statistical estimates that claim a higher success rate than he has, so I'll be interested to learn who else you think we should be listening to.

The problem with attributing crime reduction to prisons in facile way is there have been many periods throughout history when the two were uncorrelated. When crime goes back up, will you then say prisons don't work? You can't have it both ways.

Also, I don't know about the NASBO numbers, but in my own state the corrections budget has been a big recent cost driver. And California, of course, is the prison cost poster child. Plus it's not just prisons, many crimjust costs are local; jail costs in particular are hurting quite a few counties here financially.


I think it's pretty clear that The Crime Drop in America (Blumstein & Wallman, Eds., 2000) has an overall anti-incarceration viewpoint.

You seem to think I was challenging Spelman's estimate. As I thought I made clear, I was accepting it for the sake of argument. I've seen higher estimates, but choosing between them was not the point. Even accepting this one (and, no, it is not "facile" nor is it assuming causation simply from correlation), incarceration has a major effect in sparing a great many people from victimization.

Scott, I think it almost impossible to argue that incarcerating serious criminals has no effect on crime. Serious criminals do what they do "for a living", meaning that the average burglar or robber is no babe in the woods. They are repeat offenders, as a "score" tends not to last that long. By incarcerating them, you prevent all of the crime that would have been committed. Now, of course, harsh criminal penalties can sweep up "one-off" criminals who would only mug an old lady once. But lenient policies towards repetitive criminals can have horrible consequences, see, e.g., the Petits.

I agree with Kent's point regarding electronic monitoring. Clearly, if restitution has been made (something which ought to be fairly non-negotiable), and we can keep tabs on a criminal, society may be better off reserving the prison bed for someone else.

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