Odds of Ending Mass Incarceration ‘Don’t Look Good’


Political leaders in the U.S. know how to reduce mass incarceration, but “the odds at the moment don’t look very good,” criminologist Michael Tonry of the University of Minnesota told the American Society of Criminology Thursday.

Officials talk about the issue, but no sweeping action has been taken or is in prospect, Tonry said. He noted that no state has abandoned three-strikes sentencing for repeat criminals, and the Obama administration’s offer of clemency is affecting only a few inmates.

Tonry spoke at one of several panel discussions on the recently released report by a National Academy of Sciences committee on U.S. incarceration.

Jeremy Travis, president of John Jay College of Criminal Justice and chairman of the panel that produced the report, wondered if “there is a brave governor who will try to reduce incarceration by half in 10 years.”

Alfred Blumstein of Carnegie Mellon University noted that prison populations nationally have been generally steady since 2000.

“Are we stuck in the ‘new normal’?” he asked. He said many state legislators still fear being labeled “soft on crime.” Daniel Nagin, also of Carnegie Mellon, said mass incarceration is unlikely to have deterred much crime and is an “inefficient approach” to stopping criminals.

The annual ASC meeting ends Saturday in San Francisco.

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