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June 4, 2014

Are US judges interested in penal reform?

Marc Mauer of the Sentencing Project offered a sobering statistic.  If the prison population of the USA declines at the same rate it has recently, it will take over 80 years to return to the level of 1980  ie the much-lauded decline has been extremely small.  Marc felt that with the growing prevalence of mandatory sentencing provisions, particularly in the federal system, that judges had only limited power to reduce imprisonment.  He said drug courts were good, but only dealt with the lowest level of drug offender, so had not impacted on prison nos.  And he pointed out few Federal judges had exploited a 2005 Supreme Court decision allowing them greater discretion in sentencing.  In the end, he felt the answer to reducing the USA’s enormous prison population lay in changing legislation, not in influencing the judiciary.

Richard Jerome, of the Pew Charitable Trust, had a slightly different viewpoint.  Pew tries to reduce imprisonment softly, softly.  They offer their resources to States who wish to improve their criminal justice system.  They only go in if accepted by all the key stakeholders in the State.  Then, their promise is to make the criminal justice system more cost effective and effective, which incidentally involves less use of prison.   They seek the support and collaboration of the Chief Justice in each State, even in deliberating on policy change.  Richard says many judges welcome the opportunity to be part of the reform process, and support efforts to curb the prison population.

I can see how they are both right.  Both see legislative change as the most powerful lever to reduce imprisonment, while they differ somewhat in their views on the judiciary’s desire for change.