Incentivizing Excellence: A Suggestion for Merit-Based Reductions from a Twenty-Six-Year Federal Prison Insider

Michael Santos

Volume 66, Issue 6, 1549-66

America’s prison population has soared since the early 1970s, when a commitment to mass incarceration began. We now incarcerate more people than any other nation. Further, recidivism rates show that the longer we expose people to “corrections,” the less likely those people become to emerge as law-abiding, contributing citizens.

As Justice Kennedy has said, our nation incarcerates far too many people, and they serve sentences that are far too long. We can improve the outcomes of our nation’s prison system by incentivizing a pursuit of excellence, creating mechanisms through which people in prison can earn freedom in gradually increasing levels through merit. The late University of Chicago Law Professor Norval Morris wrote about a merit-based system on Australia’s Norfolk Island. Stanford Law Professor Joan Petersilia has also written about merit-based systems in The Oxford Handbook of Sentencing and Corrections.

This Essay, authored by someone who served twenty-six years in federal prisons of every security level, offers suggestions to implement a merit-based system in the U.S. prison system. The article disrupts the concept that we should measure justice through the length of time that an individual serves in prison. Rather, following the principles that have made America prosperous, this Essay posits the theory that we should pursue justice differently. Instead of waiting for calendar pages to turn, we should incentivize people in prison to pursue a path that will lead to their emergence as law-abiding, contributing citizens. The Essay suggests that we should measure the success of our prison system by the outcomes it produces. It makes a contribution to discussions on how we should reform our nation’s sentencing and prison systems.

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