The obvious (but hard-to-administer) common-sense alternative is to make the rules less numerous, the monitoring tighter, and the sanctions swift, certain, and reasonably mild, and to clearly tell each probationer and parolee exactly what the rules are and what exactly will happen, every time and right away, when a rule is broken. Mildness—or proportionality, if you like—is essential to making the threat credible, and severity turns out to be unnecessary. Experimental evidence from the HOPE program in Hawaii showed that two days in jail is as good a deterrent to drug use as six weeks, as long as the two days actually happen, and happen every time. We don’t know yet whether a day in jail, or a couple of hours in a holding cell, or a weekend of home confinement, or a week of a 9 p.m.-6 a.m. curfew, would do the trick, but we ought to learn.
The evidence seems to be that this type of justice system will decrease crime, reduce the number of people in prisons, and help the people who commit the crimes. The problem is that it needs money upfront and shows results later. Also, the new money would come from localities while the savings would go to the state. It’s the type of thing a federal government is needed for: it’s easier to borrow money, is insulated a bit from local politics, and can organize large-scale experiments. Of course, in our current environment, this isn’t likely to happen, but wouldn’t it be interesting if someone with influence (President Obama for example) pushed for it?