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Wed Apr 17, 2013, 10:05 PM

Unintended Consequences Edition 1735: How prison reform failed

This is a brief excerpt from the book I'm currently reading, Decade of Nightmares: The End of the Sixties and the Making of Eighties America, by Philip Jenkins.

"For radical critics, though, institutions as flawed as the prisons could scarcely hope to reform anyone. Even if they could, they had no right to impose the standards of upper- and middle-class white America on the poor and minorities who made up the vast bulk of inmates. Total pessimism about the chance of reform was summarized by Robert Martinson’s powerful article in The Public Interest, which examined the practical effectiveness of a huge sample of rehabilitative programs. Martinson’s study found that “with few and isolated exceptions, the rehabilitative efforts that have been reported so far have had no appreciable effect on recidivism.” The article’s message was epitomized by the simple phrase “Nothing works.” Central to any effective social reform movement was deinstitutionalization, freeing those people labeled as deviant or criminal. In Massachusetts, a new director of youth services closed the state’s Dickensian reform schools, replacing them with community-based programs and inspiring imitators nationwide. Deinstitutionalization was the declared goal of the federal Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974.

The radical attack succeeded in dismantling the established structures of criminal justice and corrections, and in making rehabilitation a dirty word. If prisons were so oppressive, then one solution was to limit their discretion by insisting that courts impose strictly determinate sentences. Instead of trying to reform, courts should inflict what Andrew von Hirsch called just deserts, a specific sentence for a specific offense. 53 The goal of punishment should change from rehabilitation to deterrence, and even to the ancient concept of retribution. In response to these new ideas, most states passed new determinate sentencing codes. Many went further to eliminate discretion by removing the power of judges to adapt their sentences to particular individuals. Under new mandatory sentencing laws, a conviction for, say, robbery would mean a two-year prison term, not a day more or less. Under the Supreme Court’s Gault decision of 1967, the principle of limiting judicial discretion was applied to the juvenile courts, which henceforward had to treat accused delinquents according to strict rules of due process. In 1975, the principle of curbing official discretion was extended to high school students when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Goss v. Lopez that even suspension from school without due process constituted a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment.


The courts were seeking to eliminate the race and class biases that apparently made the justice system so oppressive. Most criminologists felt that the reforms would drastically reduce the scale of the prison population; Martinson himself thought his findings would lead to a massive reduction in the use of prisons, since these institutions failed so abysmally. As sentencing commissions met around the country to shape the new laws, experts initially tried to avoid imposing severe prison terms for any but the most severe and violent offenders, leaving most minor criminals to be dealt with by probation or other noncustodial means. The benefits would be all the greater when combined with the legal moves to decriminalize drug use as well as many consensual sexual acts. Without petty criminals, drug users, homosexuals, and other minor sex offenders, no one would be left in the prisons except the murderers, rapists, and robbers, the ones who really belonged there. Or such was the goal."

-- Jenkins, Philip; Decade of Nightmares: The End of the Sixties and the Making of Eighties America. Kindle Locs. 909-935

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Reply Unintended Consequences Edition 1735: How prison reform failed (Original post)
unrepentant progress Apr 2013 OP
raccoon Apr 2013 #1
unrepentant progress Apr 2013 #2

Response to unrepentant progress (Original post)

Thu Apr 18, 2013, 03:49 PM

1. I just googled THE DECADE OF NIGHTMARES and it looks very interesting.


I may have to read it too.



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Response to raccoon (Reply #1)

Thu Apr 18, 2013, 06:41 PM

2. It is interesting

The author is very conservative, and to be sure there's some moralizing going on, but he is an actual historian (unlike David Barton) and the perspective is valuable. You can't ignore that there were unintended consequences to the New Liberal agenda (I use that word very loosely) of the '60s and '70s. On the other hand, there were a whole lot of crooks and psychopaths just waiting to exploit any fear and anxiety (and invent a few along the way).

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