William R. Kelly’s new book Criminal Justice at the Crossroads is a must-read.
Prof. Kelly begins his massive tome on the criminal justice system with this: “This is a book about a remarkable policy failure, perhaps the greatest in American history.”
Kelly should know: he has studied the prison system and listened to the various actors throughout the system for years. And he has reached solid conclusions about the way forward. Here, he establishes the problem, Policy 1960-2013, examining the evidence for our Tough on Drugs incarceration through the lenses of not merely an academic historian, but the lenses of judges, wardens, researchers, government agencies—a compendium of responses to the system that ran out of control. Then he examined what this policy accomplished, and we all know the statistics on crowded prisons, children without parents, medical malfeasance within the prisons, lost earnings of families, recidivism. By Chapter 3, he moves to the heart of his research: “The Scientific case for Alternatives to Crime Control: Evidence-Based Practices and Where Neurocognitive Implications Take Us From Here.”
Unlike politicians who need electing, or feel-good groups that want people released who maybe shouldn’t be, or law enforcement who have been trained to believe anyone arrested should go to jail and prison, Prof. Kelly steps back and approaches the serious problem of over-incarceration from evidence-based practices. And that’s where this book differs from so many others. He has read the research, and researched the research and the researchers. He carefully points out where conflict of interest sways results—both for and against alternative sentencing, for instance. Reading this book, you will feel comfortable accepting his conclusions because they are based on careful studies, on his tenure within the most important research groups through the system.
He investigates sentencing reform, diversion and problem-solving courts, and community supervision. Many studies are concrete, and he focuses on them. Others have too small a sample or are skewed, and he dissects those. Each of these partial solutions to the problem can contribute to the whole, and he explains concrete steps for incorporating them into the larger scheme of reform.
But here’s where I think he offers the most help for readers who want to see the system improved: he examines all the reasons that progress isn’t being made. He tears apart the head-nodding of officials who believe they are implementing change–when instead they are sending memos to mid-management who then send memo to their teams (police officers, prison officials, judges and their staffs, citizen groups focusing on housing etc). Yes, change needs to begin top-down, but it needs to be believed and implemented top-down also. Each member of the corrections team needs to be educated in the goals of the programs and needs to believe in their possible improvement—for them. For instance, adding responsibilities to parole officers cannot work. But getting a change that focuses on keeping people out of the system—and thus decreasing their case load—can work. He offers example after example of common-sense improvements that require dedicated and consistent rewiring from within. Without it, all the programs in the world, with all the inspirational titles in the world, will merely keep the system overloaded and injurious to those caught in it, including those parole officers who now spend too much time on the trivial rules people can break rather than on the mission of getting felons back into their families and into society.
Kelly advocates a step system for parole: the HOPE model begun in Hawaii. It offers ‘swift, certain, predictable, consistent, and proportional sanctions, which typically take the form of graduated stays in jail.’ Thus, rather than the “go immediately to prison because you broke a probation/parole rule,” all participants will have concrete understanding of noncompliance. The results in Hawaii are significant, and the program is being adopted elsewhere. Kelly lives as he preaches: assessments of these programs is underway, and they will see if the longer-term recidivism drops as they have seen so far.
Something needs to change in the criminal justice system, a cultural change from the prosecutors’ role to the legislative mandates on sentence length to prison education and rehabilitation, to parole and beyond. It is this culture—all of these cultures—that Kelly hopes this book will address and perhaps, incrementally, change. Let’s wish him and his book well.