January/ February 2013 A New Role for Parole

African Americans suffer from high rates of incarceration and crime. Here’s how to drastically reduce both.

By Mark A. R. Kleiman

HOPE, SWIFT, and 24/7 all apply to probationers: people put under community supervision, instead of being incarcerated. WISP addresses parolees under supervision after incarceration. Offenders released on bail or their own recognizance while awaiting trial are also a special case, because they are still legally presumed innocent. Juvenile probationers present different challenges: how, for instance, do you punish them without disrupting their schooling and family life? All of these groups are good candidates for smart community supervision.

Unlike resource-intensive programs such as drug courts, programs built around “swift-certain-not-severe” sanctions could be done at a scale large enough to transform the system. It’s logical to think that adding the right services to tighter supervision would further improve the results. That research has yet to be done. But the contrast between the impressive results of such supervision-oriented programs and the much-less-impressive results of services-oriented “reentry” programs ought to generate a rethinking of the services-only approach.

Low-level offending—predatory crimes such as burglary and retail drug dealing—is not only causally linked to substance abuse; they also share a common mechanism. Both involve actions with modest short-term benefits and large, but deferred and sporadic, costs to the people who engage in them. We know much less than we need to know about “self-command”—the capacity to shape current behavior to reflect long-term interests and goals. Early childhood education might usefully focus as much on enhancing self-command as on narrowly “cognitive” goals. If it succeeded in that task, it might help keep those children from later coming into contact with the criminal justice system, to everyone’s benefit. The Nurse-Family Partnership program, which “coaches” at-risk mothers in parenting technique, and the Good Behavior Game, which enlists the competitive team spirit in the service of classroom discipline, both seem to substantially reduce children’s contact with the criminal justice system. So does reducing the environmental factors that damage the self-command mechanisms in the brain, such as lead in housing and the soil and fetal exposure to alcohol.

This is mostly common sense, not rocket science. A sensible crime-control agenda would satisfy neither the conservative impulse to punish as many people as possible as severely as possible nor the liberal impulse to substitute services for coercion and social reform for law enforcement. Liberals will have to swallow the idea that improved coercion is as necessary as improved conditions. Conservatives will have to swallow the ideas that punishment is a cost and not a benefit and that the measure of the efficacy of a threat is how often it does not need to be carried out. Fortunately, the Right on Crime organization has such luminaries as Newt Gingrich, Grover Norquist, William Bennett, and Edwin Meese signed on to those principles. (See David Dagan and Steven M. Teles, “The Conservative War on Prisons,” Washington Monthly, November/December 2012.) It will be more difficult but not impossible to convince conservatives that providing services to actual and potential offenders can in some circumstances control crime more cost-effectively than law enforcement.

Criminal justice institutions need to give crime control priority over institutional comfort and habit. Public and nonprofit agencies that do not have crime control in their mission statements need to acknowledge that they are nonetheless in the crime-control business, whenever their actions and omissions can make the crime problem better or worse.

The bad news is that current policies leave us with unnecessarily and unforgivably high levels of both crime and incarceration. The good news is that we now know how to do better.

Click here to read more from our Jan/Feb 2013 cover package “Race, History, and Obama’s Second Term.”

Mark A. R. Kleiman is professor of public policy at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs and the author of "When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment."