A commentary on CCJ’s suggestions for sentencing reform

In Spring 2022, the Council on Felony Justice (CCJ) launched a Process Power on Lengthy Sentences with the goal of assessing our nation’s use of lengthy jail phrases (i.e., 10+ years) and the impression on public security and justice. Most just lately, the Process Power launched a report detailing their 14 suggestions about methods to cut back mass incarceration with out negatively impacting public security.

The suggestions are questionable, although, as they appear overly optimistic concerning the state of the analysis. For instance, they suggest varied options to incarceration which are supposedly efficient, although they make the analysis sound far more conclusive than it truly is. Maybe they must be reminded of the outdated adage: “If it appears too good to be true, it in all probability is.” On this put up, I’ll spotlight a number of the extra controversial “suggestions” and supply some factors for consideration. In a future put up, I’ll critically assess every suggestion in additional element and supply extra factors for consideration.

Most significantly, I felt that a lot of CCJ’s statements concerning the analysis had been too declarative and misread the present state of the analysis. For instance, anytime I see the phrase “confirmed”, I’m considerably skeptical (technically, we can’t say something with 100% certainty; we are able to solely say whether or not it is kind of possible). That being stated, it issues me that the CCJ used such robust language of their report. With regard to what the proof truly exhibits, these claims are usually not all the time upheld. Thus, it issues me that the CCJ extensively circulates coverage suggestions based mostly on this stage of proof. The American prison justice system has a infamous historical past of implementing insurance policies quickly with out contemplating the doable detrimental results to public security.

Out of the 14 suggestions, there are three that I discovered notably problematic that I’ll talk about right here (i.e., suggestions 1, 8, and 11).

Advice 1

The primary suggestion is for states and the federal authorities to scale back the variety of individuals serving lengthy sentences, and use the fee financial savings for applications which were confirmed efficient at lowering violent crime. In keeping with CCJ, it is because “the ultimate months–and even years–of lengthy jail phrases produce diminishing public security advantages” as a result of individuals are incarcerated “past the purpose at which they’re more likely to proceed committing crimes.” Additionally they argue that there are myriad options (e.g., community-based violence discount applications, legislation enforcement interventions) which are “efficient” at lowering violence.

Relating to size of incarceration, because the CCJ even admits to of their prior analysis, there are a lot of violent repeat offenders who profit from incarceration. Lots of the research on incarceration size have blended outcomes, and there are a number of research displaying stronger deterrent results from lengthier durations of incarceration, notably for violent and repeat offenders. For extra data on the analysis concerning size of incarceraton and recidivism, try our recently-published analysis overview (free model obtainable right here). As well as, official knowledge collated by the Sentencing Fee means that lengthier jail phrases are benefical for lowering recidivism amongst federal offenders.

Additional, the declare that community-based interventions are a viable and efficient method of lowering violence is unfounded. For some purpose, community-based options to incarceration are sometimes touted as efficient in lowering recidivism, even supposing the analysis on these program stay restricted. For a greater understanding of a few of that analysis, see my earlier paper about violence interruption applications, in addition to my overview of California’s similarly-themed Prop 47 applications.

CCJ’s implementation plan for community-based options can also be pretty missing. Sadly, they offer no element concerning which methods must be funded. That is disappointing, particularly contemplating that the analysis on these matters may be very blended, and we all know that not all individuals will reply to a majority of these applications. If the CCJ are going to be making a majority of these suggestions, there must be extra detailed steering on which methods must be carried out and for whom.

Advice 8

The eighth suggestion argues for elevated use of individualized danger assessments when making use of sentencing enhancements based mostly on prison historical past. To assist this suggestion, CCJ claims that individuals’s prison histories are usually not all the time reflective of the person’s present or newer habits. Whereas they agreed that prison historical past is a crucial consideraton for sentencing, they argued that they’ll trigger some individuals to be incarcerated for longer durations of time than are justified by crime prevention issues. Additionally they argued that individuals naturally “age out” of crime, which makes earlier prison histories much less related to sentencing selections.

On the subject of the connection between age and crime, they make one notably daring assertion: “analysis is definitive that prison offending is a teenager’s recreation.” For starters, anytime I see the phrase “definitive,” I’m skeptical. Secondly, this assertion is just not true. Relating to age-related desistance from crime, it is very important observe that present analysis on predictors of desistance tends to be correlational and comparatively weak. First, there’s little consensus on methods to outline or operationalize desistance, which makes it troublesome to review. . Second, there’s not lots of robust proof between most of the urged hyperlinks between supposed predictors of desistance (e.g., employment, sobriety) and prison habits itself.

Third, there are all the time going to be continual offenders who commit crime at a excessive price whilst they age, although, they are often tougher to foretell. It’s because there’s not lots of work instantly learning how imprisonment shapes the desistance course of for these high-rate continual offenders. However this is a crucial oversight, as a result of continual offenders are essentially the most related with regards to desistance from crime — each for society (as a result of they commit numerous crimes) and for themselves (as a result of their prison exercise typically dovetails with different delinquent behaviors that impede their well-being).

Relating to using danger evaluation devices, it’s nonetheless unclear whether or not danger evaluation instruments are ample in predicting dangerousness and recidivism chance. Additional, it’s exhausting to understand how correct these devices are for particular person subgroups, reminiscent of violent offenders or continual offenders. Within the CCJ’s proposed implementation plan, they state that determinations of danger ought to confer with assessments from “actuarial devices which are clear, open to public scrutiny, and have been validated for predictive accuracy,” and “the place such a clear and validated evaluation instrument will not be obtainable to be used, authorities ought to develop one.” They sadly give no element on the forms of danger assessments that they’d suggest or methods to even methods to know if a danger evaluation is validated. The assertion about “authorities ought to develop one” additionally appears very ill-informed. Creating a danger evaluation software is difficult and time-consuming, and it appears very deceptive to border this as if it’s a easy or simple activity.

Advice 11

Their eleventh suggestion is for officers to think about increasing sentence credit score alternatives for individuals serving lengthy sentences. Supposedly, this to incentivize good habits and encourage participation evidence-based rehabilitative programming (e.g., academic, vocational, psychological well being and substance use dysfunction therapy) to advertise rehabilitation. This sounds nice in concept, apart from the truth that not a lot is thought concerning the effectiveness of rehabilitative jail applications, even supposing the CCJ claims such programming is “confirmed efficient.” The CCJ even admits that there’s a want for extra analysis on sentence credit score applications, however they’re nonetheless apparently prepared to create a coverage suggestion based mostly on a doable indication that such applications might cut back recidivism. This  appears too large of a soar for me.

Whereas I agree that there are possible some rehabilitative applications which have constructive impacts for some individuals, the CCJ appears to oversell the state of the analysis. Specifically, it may be very troublesome to know what forms of correctional programming are efficient in lowering recidivism, and for whom. On the subject of understanding “what works” when it comes to correctional programming, there are a lot of forms of correctional applications with quite a lot of parts, which makes it much more troublesome to review their effectiveness. It’s additionally necessary to notice that the kind of individuals collaborating (and finishing) a majority of these applications are possible completely different from those that don’t, so it’s exhausting to know whether or not successes are associated to the applications themselves or if there’s something about these people (e.g. better motivation to alter) that makes them extra profitable. For instance, people might take part in a program for exterior causes (e.g., for good time credit), however those that truly full it are normally intrinsically motivated (e.g., they get pleasure from it) and understand that they discover worth within the programming.

Per the analysis, some interventions might enhance sure post-release outcomes, reminiscent of acquiring employment (albeit short-term) or lowering substance use, although they have a tendency to have little impression on recidivism within the mixture. Sure components may enhance their efficacy, however sadly, these are usually not detailed within the CCJ report. For instance, there’s a rising physique of proof that job-related applications might be useful in lowering recidivism, however this appears contingent on the person acquiring high-quality employment (not simply any employment) after launch. Equally, academic alternatives might cut back recidivism for sure people, reminiscent of individuals with current training deficits, however this impact will not be famous a lot within the basic offending inhabitants.

To summarize, correctional applications look vastly completely different from each other, and there’s a lack of specificity reagrding the completely different  parts of every program. This makes it much more troublesome to know which parts are useful in lowering offending, and whether or not these results apply to all offenders or only a subset of offenders. Taking this into consideration, it’s untimely for CCJ to easily level to “evidence-based correctional applications” with out giving element on the forms of applications to implement and for whom.


Sadly, it’s a frequent theme amongst advocacy teams (reminiscent of CCJ) to oversell sure concepts and declare that they’re “evidence-based” with out acknowledging the constraints of that analysis. On this put up, I reviewed CCJ’s latest article about lowering jail sentences and identified just a few examples of the place this appears obvious. Total, I felt that a lot of their statements had been too declarative in nature and incongruent with the precise state of the analysis. For instance, robust phrases like “confirmed” and “definitive” got here up a number of instances, which instantly attracts my skepticisim whatever the subject at hand.

Moreover, the claims are oversimplified and lacking a lot needed context. There may be lots of room for nuance concerning the tradeoffs between public security advantages and potential dangerous results of incarceration. We additionally know that offenders are heterogenous and can reply to incarceration in numerous methods. But, CCJ’s report is crafted in a method that leans towards a sure narrative — that longer sentences are dangerous — whereas omitting lots of context. Sadly, many won’t discover the lacking context and can take these findings at face worth. Regardless of being deceptive, many individuals won’t query the findings as they seem “convincing sufficient.” Sadly, this can be a regarding development with completely different advocacy teams. In reality, we noticed an identical theme in a latest report by the Vera Institute, which additionally focuses on sentencing reform efforts as a method to cut back reliance on incarceration. For extra data on that report, see my earlier put up.

The American prison justice system has a infamous historical past of implementing insurance policies quickly with out contemplating the complete breadth of the analysis, and so they typically cite stories like this one as a substitute of wanting towards revealed, high-quality research. Contemplating that many individuals should not have the time to dive into the previous analysis on this subject, it is rather possible that non-researchers will take these findings at face worth. CCJ is aware of this, and makes use of it to their benefit.

Keep tuned for half two of this put up, the place I’ll carry out a deeper evaluation of the report in its entirety and touch upon every of the 14 suggestions.



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