VI. Conclusion: A Tale of Two Risks

This generation faces two risks in responding to the weakening of mass incarceration. One is to exaggerate the importance of reducing incarceration and overly moralize the case against mass incarceration. Such a crusade might lead to a spike in crime and a popular backlash that could produce growing prison populations. From this perspective, a wiser course is to partner wherever possible with law enforcement and to build on the growing consensus for evidence-based corrections. The other risk is to understate the importance of deep reductions in incarceration and fail to draw strong normative judgments about mass incarceration as a public policy.

A focus on mass incarceration as a human rights problem is the right balance of risks. The creation of a sentencing and prison system that can conserve human dignity is an objective that will allow us to build effective partnerships with law enforcement and correctional agencies, who in turn will find that core to their own mission as the war on crime winds down. Likewise, a core part of what will define a correctional system as dignified is whether it offers evidence-based programming to prepare prisoners for reentry. The recognition that mass incarceration resulted in the torture of some and, by exposure to that risk, the degradation of most other prisoners is also necessary if reform efforts are to be wide and deep enough to uproot the hold of mass incarceration. This recognition should include a broad effort to restore the rights and privileges of the formerly incarcerated. It will also sustain the legal pressure that may be necessary to drive the ongoing reductions in the scale of the prison population that are necessary if remaining prisoners, who are likely to be even older and sicker than the current stock, are to receive constitutionally adequate health care.