The Problem with the All-or-Nothing Approach to Incarceration

One of the purposes of incarceration is to incapacitate violent offenders by isolating them from the broader population. But what about nonviolent offenders? Or offenders who became violent only under a highly unusual set of circumstances, e.g., those who commit “crimes of passion”? In many of these cases, it would be nice to have arrangements that exist somewhere along a continuum between incarceration and non-incarceration, in part because incarceration has many extremely effects, e.g., it leads to the atrophy of the kind of noncognitive skills one needs to flourish in the working world, which is a big issue for those we don’t intend to incarcerate for life. Mark Kleiman of UCLA has thought deeply about these issues, and he addresses how we might think about this continuum in a short post for the New York Times:

A combination of drug (including alcohol) testing and position monitoring via a G.P.S. anklet – enabling both curfew enforcement and the promise that any new offense will be easily detected – can provide most of the crime-reduction benefits of a prison cell at a small fraction of the costs in money and suffering. Even long-time methamphetamine and alcohol abusers turn out to be able to stop when the consequences of not stopping are certain and immediate. The result – as Angela Hawken of Pepperdine University has found in studies of the Hawaii HOPE program and the Washington State WISP program and as Beau Kilmer at RAND has shown for South Dakota’s 24/7 Sobriety – is less drug abuse, less crime and less incarceration. No program based on treatment alone works nearly as well.

A period of many months under such scrutiny, with conditions gradually relaxed if the offender complies with the conditions imposed, provides a much smoother segue back into normal life than a stretch behind bars followed by a stretch of weakly monitored community supervision. And being able to promise potential employers that ex-offenders will show up at work every day – on time and sober – might go a long way toward solving former offenders’ employment problem, which in turn is most of the answer to solving recidivism. [Emphasis added]

One of the added benefits of this approach, in my view, is that by making incarceration somewhat less common, expanding the toolkit of disciplinary options has the potential to restigmatize incarceration in neighborhoods in which it has become so common as to be seen as something akin to a rite of passage. 

I should note that some see Kleiman’s vision as a dystopian nightmare, as it presages a world in which this kind of scrutiny is more generally applied. I think it is important to keep in mind that mass incarceration is a nightmare in its own way, only it is currently a fact of life. And it is hard to imagine this kind of scrutiny being applied to anyone other than criminals, though of course that is no reason not to be vigilant about the use and abuse of these technologies.

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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