Mitigating America’s Mass Incarceration Crisis Without Compromising Community Protection: Expanding the Role of Rehabilitation in Sentencing
52 Pages Posted: 18 Sep 2017
Date Written: September 14, 2017
The United States is in the midst of an unprecedented mass incarceration crisis. Financially, this is no longer readily sustainable, even for the world’s largest economy. Further, the human suffering that prison causes is no longer tolerable from the normative perspective. Nevertheless, lawmakers have failed to propose or adopt coherent or wide-ranging reforms to mitigate this crisis. The crisis has emerged over the past forty years largely as a result of the emphasis on community protection as the most important objective of sentencing and the fact that the primary means of pursuing community protection during this period has been incapacitation in the form of imprisonment. In this Article, we argue that policy makers and courts took a profoundly wrong turn by equating community protection almost solely with incapacitation. A more progressive and often effective means of protecting the community is by rehabilitating offenders. In theory, rehabilitation is a widely endorsed sentencing objective, so it should already influence many sentencing outcomes, but the reality is otherwise. Rehabilitation is rarely a dominant or even weighty consideration when courts sentence offenders. This is attributable, at least in part, to skepticism regarding the capacity of criminal sanctions to reform offenders. This approach is flawed. Empirical data establishes that many offenders can be rehabilitated. In this Article, we argue that sentencing courts should place greater weight on the objective of rehabilitation and that such a change would significantly ameliorate the incarceration crisis, while enhancing community safety. We make three key recommendations in order to implement our proposal. First, it is necessary to promulgate rehabilitation as a means of protecting the community. Second, we propose that the role of rehabilitation in sentencing should be expanded. In particular, and contrary to current orthodoxy, rehabilitation should have a meaningful role even in relation to very serious offenses. In indicating the role that rehabilitation has played in their decisions, courts should clearly articulate how they have adjusted penalties in light of assessments of offenders’ potential for rehabilitation. Third, it is necessary to ensure that decisions by courts relating to the prospects of rehabilitation are made on the basis of more rigorous, empirically-grounded and transparent criteria. To this end, we examine the under-researched topic of the role that instruments that predict the likelihood of an offender’s recidivism should play in guiding sentencing decisions. The solutions advanced in this Article will provide the catalyst for rehabilitation to assume a much larger role in sentencing and thereby significantly ameliorate the incarceration crisis.
Keywords: Sentencing, rehabilitation, reducing mass incarceration
JEL Classification: K14
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation