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Research Questions

  1. What is the current state of the U.S. corrections sector, and what have been the results of the policies now in effect?
  2. How can the corrections sector better serve the country's needs and fulfill its mission to facilitate positive offender behavioral change?

Challenged by high costs and concerns that the U.S. corrections sector is not achieving its goals, there has been a growing focus on approaches to reform and improve the sector's performance. Policies initiated during the tough-on-crime era led to aggressive prosecution, lengthier sentences, and an exploding correctional population. In recent years, the corrections sector has been gradually shifting toward efforts to provide treatment, alternatives to incarceration, and enhanced programs to facilitate offender reentry. Although judicial and policy decisions and public attitudes toward crime and sentencing determine the corrections population and the resources available for staffing and reform, the sector has a unique perspective and therefore can provide critical insight regarding what is working, what is not, and how things should be. To contribute to the policy debate on the future of the corrections sector, researchers interviewed a group of prominent correctional practitioners, consultants, and academics. This report outlines their perspectives on the current state of corrections and their vision for the future. These experts were specifically asked how they would redesign the corrections sector to better serve the country's needs. The findings offer both an assessment of what is and is not working now and potential solutions to better achieve justice policy goals going forward.

Key Findings

The Corrections Sector Has Little Control Over the Many Factors That Affect Its Operations

  • Judicial and policy decisions and public attitudes toward crime and sentencing determine the corrections population and the resources available for staffing and reform.
  • The sector does have some control over how offenders are treated once they enter the system.

A Panel of Experts Agreed That the Sector's Primary Role Should Be to Facilitate Positive Offender Behavioral Change, but This Is a Complex Task

  • Three broad types of changes would be necessary for the sector to support this mission and help ensure offenders' successful reintegration into society: new programs and improved education and training for corrections staff, the elimination of revenue-generating correctional operations, and cultural change to prioritize rehabilitation over punishment.
  • There are many opportunities for the sector to leverage the latest developments in science, technology, and evidence-based practices to create alternatives to incarceration, guide the investment of scarce resources, and engage communities in initiatives to reduce recidivism and support offender reentry.

Recommendations

  • Panelists put forward several solutions to support the corrections sector's mission of facilitating positive offender behavior change, including diverting low-risk offenders and those with mental health or substance use problems to specialty facilities while reserving prisons for violent and dangerous offenders; shortening sentences and ensuring that offenders have a clear, attainable path to release; and creating smaller and safer facilities that are closer to cities with programs to support reentry.
  • In the near term, panelists recommended expanding and adequately funding probation, parole, and community-based resources to support offenders' reentry into their communities.

Related Products

The research described in this report was prepared for the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) and conducted by the Justice Policy Program within RAND Justice, Infrastructure, and Environment.

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