prison population political hot potato

I attended the National Institute of Justice Conference this week, and was happy to see a few sessions that were bent toward operations. (I wrote about OR and criminal justice here and here and last year’s NIJ conference here). The opening plenary session was a panel on prison populations. The panel discussed questions regarding the effectiveness in prisons, since the number of people incarcerated has grown by a factor of six in the last 35 years.

Corrections and Medicaid are the only programs that are a growing part of state spending (as a percentage of all spending). Due to the exploding prison population, sentencing reform is a hot topic. Many states established sentencing commissions in the past two years in order to address sentencing issues such as minimum sentences, truth in sentences, three strikes laws. Some of the issues include:

  • Parole populations are skyrocketing as a result of more people being sent to prison and as a result of reduced sentences for non-violent offenders.
  • There are usually two extremes in sentencing: no sentence or a prison sentence. Other sentences in the spectrum (such as rehabilitation) are rarely used.
  • Before you accuse the panel of being soft on crime, consider that evidence shows that it is not necessary to put all criminals in prison to reduce crime.
  • Dora Schriro (from the Arizona Department of Corrections) observed that “good” inmates often become “bad” ex-offenders because prison life is not like life on the outside.

Of course, this is a very political issue. Politics is part of the problem (no politician wants to be soft on crime, resulting in long sentences) and must be part of the solution. Hopefully, OR will also play a role in the solution.

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