Wednesday, March 21, 2012
25 Years of Sentencing
The Sentencing Project has a new collection of essays out, celebrating 25 years of existence and envisioning the sentencing and corrections of the future.
Alan Jenkins' essay features the following analysis of the changes in public opinion:
A 2006 survey by the National Center for State Courts, for example, showed that crime was regarded as the country’s
top problem by only 2 percent of Americans, while another 2 percent considered illegal drugs to be the top prob- lem. By contrast, in 1993, crime topped a majority of the U.S. public’s list.
According to the NCSC survey, and others, 58 percent of Americans favor prevention and rehabilitation as the best way to deal with crime over enforcement and punishment, and 8 in 10 believe something can be done to turn someone into a productive citizen after they’ve committed a crime. By a huge margin (76 percent vs. 19 percent), the public pre- fers to spend tax dollars on programs that prevent crime rather than building more prisons.
While the death penalty remains popular standing alone, a 2010 poll commissioned by the Death Penalty Information Center found that 61 percent of voters favor clear alterna- tives like life in prison with restitution to victims’ families.
And, more so than in past years, significant segments of the public also see bias based on race and income as real and troubling problems. Large majorities, moreover, see socio- economic bias in the system. These are still tough debates, but ones we can win.
Low crime rates, diminished crime reporting by many news outlets, rising budget pressures, and smart communica- tions by advocates have driven this shift in public opinion. That mix has made possible changes that seemed unthink- able a decade ago: reform of New York’s Rockefeller drug laws, reentry and drug treatment alternatives in Texas, res- toration of voting rights in Rhode Island, abolition of the death penalty in multiple states, lessening of federal crack/ powder cocaine sentencing disparities, and the bipartisan Second Chance Act.
Moving toward a model criminal justice system, then, is more achievable today than at any time in recent memory. Now is the time to build on public support and channel it toward more transformative change. That means adding a more effective and collaborative communications strategy to the innovative advocacy, organizing, litigation, research, and policy analysis that reformers are already pursuing around the country.
I think Jenkins is right and the tides are turning, but I can't help but ask myself whether it really is profound ideological change or scarcity-induced pragmatism. Not that the latter can't be a basis for change.