REVIEWED: Decarcerating America


Decarcerating America edited by Ernest Drucker (Nonfiction, Criminal Justice Reform Anthology, 2018).

It’s a sad truth that we’re much more familiar with the word incarceration than its polar opposite (as per the title of this book). While the United States has only about 5% of the planet’s population, it also has 25% of all the people held in the world’s jails and prisons. And that’s not even counting several million more Americans on parole or related forms of governmental supervision. This is a comparatively new thing, too–until about 40 years ago, the rate at which the USA put its people behind bars was pretty much the same as most other Western democracies.

So what happened? How did the self-proclaimed “Land of the Free” arrive at this state, where a new term (“Mass Incarceration”) has come into common use? And what can/should be done about it? These are the questions at the center of this provocative, thoughtful and wide-ranging collection of essays from experts on various aspects of justice reform.

Indeed, the contributors to this volume on why and how reform of our criminal justice system needs to be reformed, and the methods that can be employed come from a wide range of disciplines. They include veteran judges, attorneys, social workers, political activists, former offenders, academics and healthcare experts. Editor Drucker is one of the latter and with others makes compelling points, showing that our excessive zeal to toss people into prison (and for ever-longer terms of inprisonment) has had serious costs in both the physical and mental health of those jailed and society at large.

The entire criminal justice process–from arrest, plea bargaining, sentencing, conditions behind bars, parole and post-release efforts to reduce recidivism–come in for detailed (and often critical) examination. But possible solutions are also in evidence, as are suggestions for interventions that should result in fewer people becoming involved in the system in the first place. Many of the essays here feature common sense matters (such as treating drug use as a community health problem rather than a criminal concern; and likewise repairing the blatant tears in the social safety net such as failing to provide adequate services for the mentally ill, who too often end up in jails utterly unequipped to deal with them. A related problem, stemming by the kneejerk “tough on crime” stance that leads to ever-longer sentences, is the bizarre spectacle of prisons having to open special wings for extremely elderly or even terminally ill convicts (who pose virtually no threat to anyone, yet can’t be released).

Another, less discussed area of concern is providing alternate industries for communities (often rural and otherwise job-poor) who will see prisons closed.

More controversial ideas include changing the focus of drug-therapy from totally ending use to managing it, thereby reducing risks and ending very long sentences for all but extremely rare cases (including violent offenders).

It’s a book rich in thought and thoughtfullness.


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