February 1, 2016
Partial Abstract: Public beliefs about the best way to respond to crime change over time, and have been doing so at a rapid pace in recent years. After more than forty years of ever more severe penal policies, the punitive sentiment that fueled the growth of mass incarceration in the United States appears to be softening. Across the country, prison growth has slowed and, in some places, has even reversed. Many new laws and policies have enabled this change. The most prominent of these implement or reflect what have been called “evidence-based practices” designed to reduce prison populations and their associated fiscal and human costs. These practices—which broadly include the use of actuarial risk assessment tools, the development of deterrence-based sanctioning programs, and the adoption of new supervision techniques—are based on criminological research about “what works” to reduce convicted individuals’ odds of committing future crimes.
Because evidence-based practices focus on reducing crime and recidivism, they are usually promoted as progressive tools for making the criminal justice system more humane. And while many have the potential to do just that, evidence-based practices are not inherently benign with respect to their effect on mass incarceration and the breadth of the penal state. In their reliance on aggregate data and classification, many such practices have as much in common with the “new penology” that enabled mass incarceration as with the neorehabilitationism they are ordinarily thought to represent.