Jan 8, 2013
There has been a noticeable slowing down of state penal reform over the past year. It is possible or even probable that the enormous volume of penal reform enacted is being digested by the states before further reform can be initiated. But there are reports coming out of a number of states that suggest that the wave of reform may have peaked as state legislatures and governors, as well as county officals, balk at the results and costs of new reforms.
There are serious problems even in states that are making a good faith effort to make penal reform work. If states put serious offenders in overcrowded local jails or poorly structured and funded alternative programs to incarceration, they will be setting their penal reform efforts up for failure. As has happened so often before, reforms are embraced and those released into the community receieve neither the education, resources, or support to be successful on the outside.
One of the most debilitating examples of this phenomenum, was the closing down of mental hospitals between 1970 and 1980. the promise made was that half-way houses, community mental health programs, and other critical support would complete needed reform. The reality was that many of those released ended up on the streets and continue to be a sordid example of how institutional reform can be a sabotaged by government inaction.
Montana and Arkansas are examples of states that are second guessing their state’s penal reform efforts (see facebook stream on the right). While many dislike the idea of releasing prison bound offenders to county facilities and local programs, even more are concerned with whether the states will provide sufficient funds to county probation departments and non-profit organizations to provide the rehabilitative and supervisory services required. At the same time, it should also be acknowledged than states are dealing with penal reform during a period where fiscal restraints on the court and criminal justice system are paralyzing many good-fsith efforts to move forward.
I remain hopeful that the penal reform that has been sweeping the nation will continue to build momentum and that substantial reform will reach every state. But from what I’ve learned from discussions with criminal justice professionals nationwide (and my experiences as an.assigned judge sitting in courtrooms across Northern Callfornia), I remain concerned. It appears that the best many states can do to provide a path to rehabilitation, is early release from prison with a pat on the back and a referral to the nearest AA/NA meeting.