The Urgent Need for Better Dialogue on Crime, Punishment and Education

We have an obligation both to create the conditions for better public deliberation on crime and incarceration and to help policymakers craft and implement more thoughtful policy.

Over the past few weeks, we’ve been exploring higher education opportunities for prisoners, particularly through Second Chance Pell. As we’ve demonstrated, large gaps exist between research, policy and public attitudes when it comes to correctional education. These gaps suggest a clear need for better public deliberation and decision making on this issue.

Research indicates that providing educational opportunities to prisoners has a significant positive impact on recidivism. Yet traditional public opinion research has found that Americans - particularly white Americans - tend to view punishment, not education, as the proper deterrent for crime. In a 2014 survey from The General Social Survey, when asked “Do you think the courts in this area deal too harshly or not harshly enough with criminals?”, 59 percent of white respondents answered “Not harshly enough.”

At the same time, a growing body of research suggests that when average Americans have the opportunity to deliberate on issues related to crime and punishment, they demonstrate the desire and capacity for more creative, measured and thoughtful cross-partisan problem solving.

Deliberation provides people with an opportunity to engage in real listening and true dialogue with others from very different backgrounds and starting points. The experience of authentic deliberation permits people from sometimes divergent ideological orientations to consider the value of each other’s points. It creates space for new forms of collaboration across boundaries. And it shows people a much needed alternative to the hostile, partisan rhetoric and point-counterpoint debate model of public discourse that undermines our ability to solve shared problems.

A recent, promising study of Citizens Juries work in Australia found that when the public deliberated about issues related to crime and incarceration, their attitudes were less punitive and more nuanced than what we see in typical public opinion polling.

People are hungry for better dialogue and more creative collaboration around issues related to crime and punishment. We witnessed this firsthand about 11 years ago, when we conducted research on alternative sentencing and designed community dialogues on police-community relations in Brooklyn, New York. Over a decade later, our national conversation about the challenges facing our criminal justice system, and the many costs of mass incarceration, remains stunted.

The costs of mass incarceration are rising steeply, particularly for non-violent offenders, who make up over 60 percent of prison populations. Reducing the nonviolent incarceration rate by half would save the U.S $16.9 billion in correctional spending, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research. Efforts to reduce recidivism through education could go a long way in addressing those costs.

It’s time for a better conversation and for cross-partisan problem solving around mass incarceration, including the relationship between incarceration and educational opportunity, equity and the uncertain future of the American Dream.

Policymakers tend to take public opinion seriously when they make decisions, particularly on divisive issues. We have an obligation both to create the conditions for better public deliberation on crime and incarceration and to help policymakers craft and implement more thoughtful policy. On a concrete issue like higher education in prisons, there is tremendous opportunity to show that thoughtful deliberation and problem solving across ideological divides is not only possible, but absolutely necessary.

This blog post is the final installment in a series of three taking a deeper look into the need for better public engagement around government spending on higher education for incarcerated individuals. Read the first two pieces in the series here and here.


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