Faye S. Taxman and Alex Breno
Alternatives to incarceration are more than options, they have evolved into sentences of their own accord. Originally, probation and prison were the two major sentences; however, the concept of intermediate or graduated sanctions emerged in the 1980s and evolved throughout the 1990s. While alternatives to incarceration were considered options, they are now recognized as intermediate sanctions, graduated sanctions, and just plain sentencing options. This emergence occurred during the time that probation-plus-conditions sentences spiked, so that the average probationer now has over 17 standard conditions. With Justice Reinvestment Initiatives as a national effort to reduce the impact of mass incarceration policies, the JRI policy effort the has served to legitimize sentences that used to be considered “alternatives” by incorporating risk/need assessments, legislation to reduce sentence lengths and incarceration sentences, and changes in practices to address noncompliant probationers and parolees. Here, a new conceptual model is proposed that integrates sentencing options with results from a risk and need assessment depending on various types of liberty restrictions. Given the need to reduce prison overcrowding, there is an even further need to examine how different sentencing options can be used for different type of individuals.
Despite a growing consensus that “mass incarceration” in the United States has reached unacceptable levels, there has been little movement in its decline. National imprisonment rates seem to have stabilized and will remain so absent a major decarceration effort. To implement such a decarceration effort requires a strategic plan that will lower prison admissions and lengths of stay for all prisoners—especially those convicted of violent crimes. It will also need to reduce the more pervasive nature of other forms of correctional control (jails, probation, and parole). Such a strategy, which relies upon current and past policies, is entirely feasible. But to take hold on a national level, the plan must negate economic and public safety concerns that favor maintaining high imprisonment and correctional control rates.