Academic journal article Harvard Law Review

Designing a Prisoner Reentry System Hardwired to Manage Disputes

Academic journal article Harvard Law Review

Designing a Prisoner Reentry System Hardwired to Manage Disputes

Article excerpt


What goes in must come out. Although life and death sentences receive the most press, (1) most federal inmates serve a finite prison sentence. When their time is up, they return to their communities, most to the same problems that led them to commit crime in the first place. (2) Approximately six out of ten prisoners released from prison this year will be rearrested within two years. (3) Although recidivism is not a new problem, (4) in the last ten years criminal justice reformers have become increasingly committed to reducing this number. (5) One recently developed method to reduce recidivism is the reentry court, a model that purports to provide released prisoners with the skills and support necessary to reintegrate into the community and overcome the obstacles that have led them to commit crime in the past. (6)

The United States desperately needs a system to manage the dispute-ridden process of successfully reintegrating prisoners into society. Reentry courts are not the first dispute resolution system designed to reform convicts or reduce recidivism. For most of the twentieth century, the primary purpose of prison was to treat and rehabilitate inmates. (7) The rehabilitative ideal stood on solid ground for decades, but it went from revered to reviled in only a few short years. (8) For this reason, any effective system must be able to correct the mistakes of the past in a sustainable way. This Note argues that scholars and practitioners of dispute systems design (DSD) have articulated several important criteria for designing such a system: any successful reentry system must involve stakeholders, operate when the timing is right, and incorporate a process for revisiting and reevaluating itself.

This Note proceeds in four parts. Part I identifies three DSD principles that apply to the criminal justice system. Part II examines past attempts to reintegrate prisoners into society through rehabilitation and argues that the three identified DSD principles explain rehabilitation's downfall in the 1970s. Part III lays out the current attempts to battle the reentry problem through supervised release and reentry courts and argues that, while the current attempts do a better job of incorporating the three principles, there is still room for improvement. Part IV examines these principles in greater detail and suggests ways in which a new reentry system could better incorporate each principle.


Dispute systems design is an offshoot of alternative dispute resolution scholarship that approaches dispute resolution in a systematic manner and seeks to design systems that allow institutions to manage effectively not just one dispute, but every dispute. (9) Criminal justice reformers should recognize that DSD can provide enormous insight into the process of creating a system to resolve the reentry problem. Reentry involves a series of disputes: prisoners and other actors disagree about appropriate conduct after release, appropriate punishment for misconduct, and what assistance should be provided to the prisoner to help him reform. For example: A releasee leaves his halfway house early because he is tired of the restriction on his movement and wants to see his wife; the probation officer brings him before the judge, who revokes his supervised release and sends him back to prison. He gets out and returns to supervised release. He is now angry at his probation officer and the judge; he has lost any remaining belief in a system that would impose what he feels was such a harsh punishment for such a small infraction; and he is not one step closer to more freedom of movement or more time with his wife. Consider another example: A second prisoner leaves prison with no job skills and no place to live. He goes to live with his cousin who is still running drugs, and even though he wants to stay out of trouble, the temptation to reoffend is too great and he eventually gets rearrested for possession. …

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