Examining U.S. Corrections Policy


Eighteen of the country's leading scholars and experts on corrections and related fields have launched a major project to study the “causes and consequences of high rates of incarceration” in the United States.

The panel of scholars, chaired by Jeremy Travis, president of John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, will examine the reasons for the dramatic increases in U.S. incarceration rates since the 1970s, which have produced one of the world's highest incarceration levels—with more than 2.3 million people behind bars in U.S. prisons and jails at any time

The topic has been widely discussed and analyzed for years by advocacy groups on the left and right, as well as by individual scholars. But the two-year, $1.5 million project, convened by the National Research Council (part of the National Academy of Sciences) represents the first time in recent memory that these issues have been subject to wide-ranging, cross-disciplinary research.

“It now is time to review the state of knowledge—to look at the causes of the high rate of incarceration and the consequences for society,” said Travis, author of But They All Came Back: Facing the Challenges of Prisoner Reentry (2005).

Travis, who also served as Deputy Commissioner for Legal Matters for the New York City Police Department from 1990-1994, noted that “the incarceration rate has peaked after a five-fold increase in 40 years, and the numbers in some states have started to decline.”

Project funding is split between the National Institute of Justice—the Department of Justice research arm that Travis formerly headed—and the Chicago-based John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation,

The group will examine a wide range of issues related to U.S. corrections, including the costs and benefits of current sentencing and incarceration policies, and it will explore any evidence that “alternative punishments might achieve similar public safety benefits and lower financial and social costs,” according to the official announcement of the project.

The panel will also assess existing research on incarceration, identify research gaps and offer policy recommendations.

In its statement announcing the project, the MacArthur Foundation said, “It is evident that there are significant knowledge gaps regarding the causes and consequences of incarceration.”

The project is further described on the site of the National Research Council's Committee on Law and Justice, which Travis also heads.

In the past, the committee has overseen research on key criminal justice issues, including career criminals, the death penalty, violence against women, youth development, and firearms control. The committee also recently studied the federal government's criminal justice research and statistics programs.

The new study somewhat parallels ongoing or proposed work, including projects by the Pew Center on the States and affiliated organizations on sentencing reform in several states, and a national criminal justice commission proposed by Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) that is yet to be approved by Congress.

Members of Travis' study panel include some major leaders and researchers in the corrections field.

They are:

  • Jeffrey Beard, former secretary of the Pennsylvania Corrections Department, now at Pennsylvania State University;
  • Robert Crutchfield, a sociologist who teaches at the University of Washington;
  • Tony Fabelo of the Council of State Governments Justice Center, a former adviser to Texas governors Ann Richards, George W. Bush and Rick Perry;
  • Marie Gottschalk, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania;
  • Craig Haney, a professor of psychology at the University of California Santa Cruz;
  • Randall Kennedy, a law professor at Harvard University;
  • Glenn C. Loury, professor of social sciences and economics at Brown University;
  • Sara McLanahan, professor of sociology and public affairs at Princeton University;
  • Lawrence Mead, professor of politics and public policy at New York University;
  • Ann Morrison Piehl, professor of economics at Rutgers University;
  • Daniel Nagin, professor of public policy and statistics at Carnegie Mellon University;
  • Devah Pager, a professor of sociology at Princeton University;
  • Robert Sampson, professor of social sciences at Harvard and current president of the American Society of Criminology;
  • Heather Thompson, professor of history at Temple University;
  • Michael Tonry, professor of law of the University of Minnesota;
  • Avelardo Valdez, professor of social work at the University of Southern California;
  • Bruce Western, professor of sociology at Harvard, who wrote a 2006 book on punishment and inequality in America.

The panel already has held one meeting. In the future it may call in experts to make presentations but will not hold public hearings.

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington-based contributing editor of The Crime Report. He welcomes comments from readers.

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