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James B. Jacobs Finding Alternatives to the Carceral State M O S T P R E S E N T -D A Y S C H O L A R S H IP O N T H E CAR CERAL STATE, A N D nearly all the papers and discussion in this special issue, involve analy­ sis of the massive increase in the prison population over the last 25 years. W hat accounts for this tu rn tow ard mass incarceration? W hat are its im plications for crim e control and for the social and political health of society? The consensus among the papers in this volume is that the costs of mass incarceration far outweigh the benefits. W hat has not yet been systematically explored, and what is m eant to be the focus of this final section, is how to decarcerate. This is practi­ cally virgin territory. Scholars and activists have barely begun to create a conversation, m uch less a literature, on the politics and policy of décar­ cération. Thus, the discussion in this section bears a heavy responsibility. My experience is that m ost people begin to think about décarcér­ ation as a problem in political persuasion. But that begs the questions: W ho needs persuading, and of what? Will the activists’ objectives be satisfied if political elites, prosecutors, and judges, or perhaps m embers of the general public, are persuaded th at im prisonm ent is used too m uch in the contem poraiy United States? W hich of these audiences is m ost easy and m ost difficult to persuade? W hat kind of argum ents and evidence will be necessary to persuade them? Beyond strong arguments and impressive facts, do we need some kind of political movem ent to achieve significant décarcération? W hat social research Voi 74 : No 2 : Summer 2007 695 should such a m ovem ent look like? How should it be created? W ho should be its leaders? Is it sufficient for activists to show how costly, dysfunctional and destructive mass incarceration is, or is it incum bent upon activists to put forward strategies for decarcerating? Even passing attention to the issue suggests that there are m any possible paths to decarceration; each of them implicates policy choices and triggers its own political debate. Consider, for example, w hether decarceration should be built on radi­ cally decreasing the use of crim inal law and criminal law enforcement. For example, a decarceration program could be being built on decrimi­ nalization of certain prevalent crimes that feed large num bers of defen­ dants into jail and prison. Drug offenses are the m ost obvious. Much of the im prisonm ent explosion can be attributed to the proliferation o f drug enforcem ent. It would be possible, w ith a stroke of the pen, to legalize commerce in all mood and m ind altering drugs or perhaps ju st m arijuana. Holding everything else constant, the num ber of jail and prison inm ates could be reduced 25 percent or more. Should the decarceration m ovem ent also be a drug legalization m ovem ent? Or are decarceration activists skeptical of the costs that drug legalization would impose on the society, especially on at risk populations? Even if they are not skeptical about such costs, do they believe that drug legal­ ization (even m arijuana only) would be too difficult to sell as an alterna­ tive to incarceration? No other single decriminalization could have as large an effect on im prisonm ent rates as drug decrim inalization, but there are other decriminalizations that are also conceptually possible: for example, we could decrim inalize domestic violence, which, after all, was mostly—at least de facto—decriminalized until the last several decades. Even this single decrim inalization example illustrates that it is one thing to argue that there is too m uch incarceration in the United States, and quite another thing to prescribe a politically acceptable decarceration strategy. It would also be possible to proceed less drastically by leaving th e crim inal laws in place bu t reducing police enforcem ent. This could be done by...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1944-768X
Print ISSN
0037-783X
Pages
pp. 695-699
Launched on MUSE
2014-04-30
Open Access
No
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