Professor Barry Latzer asserts in his March 24 opinion essay, “Voodoo Criminology ,” that Senator Sanders’s plan to dramatically reduce our nation’s use of incarceration is akin to voodoo––unlikely either to reach its stated goals or be good for society. On the first point, we agree. Sanders’s plan to cut the prison population by half, for example, is somewhat arbitrary and his plan to get there, faulty. But that doesn’t mean our nation shouldn’t work toward dramatic decarceration.
As pointed out by Latzer, incarceration is far from successful at preventing future crime. Estimates from a 2018 Pew report  suggest three-year recidivism rates currently sit around 37 percent, meaning about four out of every 10 people in prison leave only to return three years later. And at the five year mark, recidivism rates are closer to 50 percent. These estimates are not proof of incorrigibility; rather, they should encourage us to actively seek out and evaluate innovative community-based models for accountability.
Community programs effectively targeting those who have committed violent crime might be rare, but they do exist. Common Justice  runs a restorative justice program in New York City which serves as an alternative to incarceration for people who have committed violent felonies such as assault and robbery. Program statistics  suggest that their restorative justice model has been successful: Approximately 90 percent of victims, when given the choice, pursue this option over incarceration, and less than 10 percent of participants are removed from the program because they committed a new crime. By implementing similar programs across the nation, we can reduce our prison population and simultaneously promote healing in our communities.
We can also abet decarceration by expanding the use of compassionate release , which lets the elderly and terminally ill return to our communities early. Roughly 12 percent of prisoners  in the United States sentenced to more than one year behind bars are age 55 or older. This aging population is an ever-growing drain on correctional resources yet presents little danger to society, even when individuals have a violent past. As one example, the recidivism rate among the “Ungers,”  a group of almost 200 elderly lifers who were released from prison following a court ruling in 2012, is lower than three percent.
In the end, Latzer’s assessment is partially correct: To truly reduce incarceration, we will have to rethink accountability for violent crime. Fortunately, we already have the tools to do so.
- “Voodoo Criminology”: https://www.nationalreview.com/2020/03/criminal-justice-reform-bernie-sanders-plan-cut-prison-population-by-50-percent-dangerous/
- “2018 Pew report”: https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/articles/2018/08/01/the-changing-state-of-recidivism-fewer-people-going-back-to-prison
- “Common Justice”: https://www.commonjustice.org/common_justice_model
- “Program statistics”: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/03/opinion/violence-criminal-justice.html
- “compassionate release”: https://famm.org/wp-content/uploads/Exec-Summary-Report.pdf
- “12 percent of prisoners”: https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/p17.pdf
- ““Ungers,””: http://www.justicepolicy.org/research/12320?utm_source=%2fUnger&utm_medium=web&utm_campaign=redirect