Evaluate corrections officials not just on the state of prisons, but on rate of recidivism

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It’s long past time for the mean season in American sentencing to end.

After a decades-long imprisonment binge, the nation’s tough-on-crime stance gave way to smart-on-crime innovations such as ending some mandatory minimum sentences and pursuing alternatives to incarceration for low-level, non-violent crimes.

Those efforts, which could be stymied by the current administration, were aimed at lowering mass incarceration.

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But reducing jail and prison populations is hardly a cure-all. The size of America’s correctional enterprise is only one part of the equation. We also must consider its quality.

More than 2 million people are behind bars in the U.S., a rate that rivals the previous peak in 2008.

Despite fluctuations in the rate of incarceration, a crucial question remains: What should correctional authorities do to improve the lives of the large number of people they still lock up?

Offenders deserve to be punished for the wrongs they have committed, but the system is called corrections for a reason — it’s intended to correct (or reform) offenders.

Nearly 9 in 10 Americans agree it is important to try to rehabilitate those who have committed crimes and are in the correctional system. The public also demonstrates high support for formal “rehabilitation ceremonies” that would restore full citizenship to offenders who completed treatment programs, apologized and stayed crime-free for several years.

A growing readiness exists to reinvent corrections. Bold thinking and experimentation are needed. And that experimental approach could appeal to criminal justice reformers and hard-line supporters of harsher sentencing alike. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has touted a return to “law and order” crackdowns, is right to be concerned about “a vicious cycle of crime, poverty and more crime.” But activists who believe in rehabilitation also support “smarter policies based on sound research.”

So, how can prisons be improved? Here are three general ideas:

►Corrections officials should be evaluated more diligently not just on their ability to manage institutions but also to reform the inmates who are in them, and that must include inmates who have re-entered society and recidivated. There’s an expectation that wardens will maintain peace within their prisons. They are held responsible if, for example, a riot breaks out. Some aspects of police reform occurred because, among other things, law enforcement leadership was made responsible not only for solving cases but also for reducing crime. Officials must be held equally responsible for recidivism rates.

►Prisons must be regarded as behavioral-change institutions, not warehouses for wrongdoers. Being nasty to offenders by, for instance, exposing them to harsh prison conditions risks making them more criminal. Prisons must be therapeutic and focus on rehabilitation. This does not mean going easy on offenders, but instead insisting that they learn pro-social values and how to act responsibly. Rehabilitative interventions require inmates to engage in the difficult work of changing their thinking and behavior.

►Corrections must become a true science. If medical standards were applied, many correctional practices and programs would be seen as quackery worthy of malpractice lawsuits. Evidence suggests that a therapeutic or human-service approach to corrections is most likely to reduce recidivism by helping offenders acquire the cognitive abilities, problem-solving and coping skills, and human capital needed to overcome the deficits that place them at risk of criminal conduct in the first place. Sustained research is required — as is done in medicine — to give correctional workers more and better tools for inmate rehabilitation.

Once considered a solution to America’s crime problem, mass incarceration has become a major contributor to our social ills. This sentiment is shared across the political spectrum, with states both red (like Texas) and blue (like California) refusing to lock up more people.

Prison reform should matter as well, for all the reasons that animate today’s discussions about sentencing. You may be concerned as a taxpayer footing the bill for revolving-door incarceration, or as a progressive believer in human improvement.

Perhaps you’re interested in prison reform as a victim’s advocate seeking to prevent further injuries to the innocent, or as a supporter of social justice for the poor and communities of color who have been profoundly affected by mass incarceration.

Maybe you’re a person of faith who believes that everyone is capable of redemption, or a citizen who recognizes that there’s no greater nation of second chances than America.

Ultimately, we all have an interest in rehabilitating inmates to ensure that they become productive members of society.

Francis T. Cullen is Distinguished Research Professor Emeritus of Criminal Justice and senior research associate at the University of Cincinnati. He is also the author of the Correctional Rehabilitation chapter of the Reforming Criminal Justice report.

Erik Luna is the Amelia D. Lewis Professor of Constitutional & Criminal Law at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University. He spearheaded and edited the Reforming Criminal Justice report.