Decarceration Nation? Penal Downsizing and the Human Security Framework

Article excerpt

Abstract: A federal judicial panel has recently ordered the state of California to reduce its landmark prison population by 40,000 inmates over two years, from 170,000 to around 130,000. Besides addressing worrisome fiscal problems, just how California and other states deal with penal downsizing is important, both for the present needs of public safety and for future justice planning. This paper addresses what appears to be the next phase in our national experiment in mass incarceration: penal downsizing. I argue for the adoption of a restorative "human security" policy orientation. The human security framework was developed by the United Nations and has been described as "freedom from want and freedom from fear." Attending to the human security needs of individuals, families, and communities, can reorient justice systems away from largely discredited punitive justice models and provide direction for the difficult public policy choices that lay ahead.

Keywords: California corrections; decarceration; human security; mass incarceration; penal downsizing; penal policy; restorative justice; United Nations

INTRODUCTION

Recently, a federal judicial panel ordered the state of California to reduce its prison population by 40,000 inmates over two years, from 170,000 to around 130,000. This unusual court imposition has now survived an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court (Savage and McGreevy 2011). The reduction, sizable as it is, still would leave the system "overcrowded," in that the remaining population would put the prison system at 130% of design capacity, some 30,000 inmates over its intended incarcerated caseload. Besides addressing worrisome fiscal problems,1 just how California and other states deal with penal downsizing is important, both for the present needs of public safety and for future justice planning. Especially at stake is the stability of poor, minority neighborhoods faced with disproportionately bearing the burden of dealing with an erratic justice apparatus (Clear 2007).

This paper is offered in the spirit of contributing to what appears to be the next phase in our national experiment in mass incarceration, penal downsizing. I argue below for the adoption of a "human security" policy orientation (Sen 1999). The human security framework, perhaps idealistically described as "freedom from want and freedom from fear," (Ogata 2002) can reorient justice systems away from largely discredited punitive justice models and provide direction for the difficult public policy choices that lay ahead. An initiative to emphasize human security might not be as radical as it first appears, since such characteristics are already implied in the recent move in corrections toward prioritizing prisoner reentry (Travis 2005; Petersilia 2003), and in specialized courts, such as homeless and drug courts (Berman and Feinblatt 2005). What remains in order to move this agenda forward is to build the conceptual linkages between the harms of punitive justice, the insights achieved through reconceptualizing reentry, and the holistic, preventative character of human security.

This is important work. Nationally, the emerging penal downsizing will serve as a multi-layered experiment that will inform future debates on sentencing, incarceration practices, alternative sanctions, and reentry (Austin, et. al. 2007).

MASS INCARCERATION, THE NEW PENOLOGY, AND THE DEATH OF THE SOCIAL

The case of North Lawndale, one of the most desolate zones of Chicago's West Side, gives a measure of the depth of penal penetration in the hyperghetto. In 1999 the police recorded 17,059 arrests in this bleak all-black neighborhood for a population of barely 25,800 adults; one third of these arrests were for narcotics offenses, with simple possession comprising three cases in four; of the 2,979 local residents remanded to the Illinois Department of Corrections that year, 1,909 were convicted of drug violations and another 596 of theft, these two infractions accounting for 85% of all entries in state prison from the area. …