Thursday, May 6, 2010

Corrections Expert Talks of "Decarcerating" America reported about nationally recognized corrections expert James Austin's recent address to the National Committee on Community Corrections. Austin proposed that states could cut their prison populations by almost 400,000 and save millions of dollars if the average inmate’s length of stay behind bars were cut to 1988 levels. Austin said that for those convicted of violent crimes, this would mean spending an average of 34 months in prison rather than 49 months. He contended that serving 15 months less would have little or no impact on the amount of repeat criminality later.

In 2007, Austin published a more detailed and controversial report on reducing prison population. The report was entitled, Unlocking America: Why and How to Reduce America's Prison Population. Austin made four recommendations to "Decarcerate" America, rather than continuing to incarcerate Americans at an alarming rate.

The recommendations included:

1. Reduce the severity of sentences-have offenders spend less time in prison;
2. Eliminate prison for technical parole violators-parolees who do not follow the rules (distinguished from those who break the law) should not be sent back to prison;
3. Reduce parole/probation periods-parolees/probationers should be supervised for shorter periods of time;
4. Decriminalize victimless crimes like drug use-this is probably the most controversial.

At the time, Austin suggested that these measures would cut prison population by more than 50-percent.

According to, Austin is doing research for the Norval Morris Project, of the National Institute of Corrections, an agency of the U.S. Department of Justice. Austin contends that shorter punishments are just as effective as long prison terms, and that many penalties in the U.S. are far out of proportion to the crimes. For example, a typical convicted robber spends 60 months in prison at a cost of about $115,000, compared with the median victim loss of $100 a robbery.

To read Austin's 2007 report:

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