Smart on Crime: The Struggle to Build a Better American Penal System, 1st Edition (Hardback) book cover

Smart on Crime

The Struggle to Build a Better American Penal System, 1st Edition

By Garrick L. Percival

CRC Press

263 pages | 12 B/W Illus.

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pub: 2015-07-28
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The most punitive era in American history reached its apex in the 1990s, but the trend has reversed in recent years. Smart on Crime: The Struggle to Build a Better American Penal System examines the factors causing this dramatic turnaround. It relates and echoes the increasing need and desire on the part of actors in the American government system to construct a penal system that is more rational and humane.

Author Garrick L. Percival points out that the prison boom did not naturally emerge as a governmental response to increasing crime rates. Instead, political forces actively built and shaped the growth of a more aggressive and populated penal system. He is optimistic that the shifting political forces surrounding crime and punishment can now reform the system, explaining how current political actors can craft more constructive and just policies and programs. The book shows how rationality and humanitarianism lead to a penal system that imprisons fewer people, does less harm to the lives of individual offenders and those close to them, and is less expensive to maintain.

The book presents empirical data to concretely demonstrate what is working and what is not in today’s penal system. It closely examines policies and practices in Texas, Ohio, and California as comparative illustrations on what progress has been made or needs to be made in penal systems across the United States. The book includes a comprehensive discussion of highlighted issues, and relates more than two dozen interviews with pivotal political actors who clarify why there is a major shift underway in the American penal system. Their insights reveal paths that can be taken to improve the current penal system.


"Percival (San José State Univ.) takes readers on a journey informed by a political science approach to understand how the US has gone from the wars on crime and drugs that led to mass incarceration to what is now termed a 'smart on crime' approach aimed at evidence-based policies and decarceration. Percival rejects as too simplistic the idea that economics has driven this new approach to criminal justice in favor of a more nuanced explanation that examines the political coalitions that have emerged because of a convergence of a number of driving factors. He largely credits conservative politicians and their allies with guiding the 'smart on crime' movement. His method is to conduct a policy history of past 'tough on crime' policies, a current legislative history of the Second Chance Act and the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, and an assessment of policies in three states—Ohio, Texas, and California—to support his contention that conservatives have played a pivotal role in advancing policies that focus on evidence-based rehabilitation policies and fiscal restraint. Summing up: Recommended. Upper-division undergraduate, graduate, and research collections."

—S. E. Blankenship, Lake Erie College, Painesville, Ohio, USA, for CHOICE, March 2016

Table of Contents



Smart on Crime Politics


Crime Politics in the American Political System

Coalition Politics and Reform in the Criminal Justice Subsystem

Rise of the Smart on Crime Coalition

Explaining the Emergence of the Smart on Crime Coalition

Policy Learning

Bringing Policy Back into the Picture

When Is Reform Really Reform?

Collapse of the Rehabilitative Model and Rise of the Tough on Crime Coalition

Calm before the Storm

The Storm: The Rehabilitative Model Gets Blown Away

Politicalization of Rehabilitation Research

Sagging Support for Rehabilitation on the Left

Building an Institutional Legacy

Tough on Crime Coalition

Crisis and Opportunity in the American Penal System

To the Victors Go the Spoils

Problems on the Ground: Consequences of the Tough on Crime Regime

The Penal System and Inequality

Diminishing Marginal Returns of Mass Incarceration

Conditions Facilitating the Search for Alternatives and Policy Learning

Economic Crisis

The Contemporary Prison System Is a Different Beast

Examining Changes in Public Attitudes on Crime and Punishment

Fear of Crime

Saliency of Crime

Prisoner Reentry and the Politics of the Second Chance Act

Pressure from the Bottom Up

Conceptualizing Prisoner Reentry

Ohio Plan

Developments in Corrections Policy Research

Conservatives Begin the Push for Prisoner Reentry

Introduction of the SCA

Prison Fellowship Ministries

Fight to Protect Inmates’ Religious Freedom

Framing the Meaning of the SCA

Correctional Associations

Second Chance Advocacy in the Senate

Political Progress in the House

Roadblocks in the Senate

Closing the Deal

Fair Sentencing Act of 2010

Policy Context

Challenging the Unique Dangers of Crack Cocaine

Proposals for Change

Legal Challenges to the Federal Sentencing Process

New Proposals for Crack Sentencing Reform

Mobilizing Support for Crack Sentencing Reform


Introduction to the Problem Environment

Bringing an Engineer’s Perspective to the Texas Penal System

Emergence of New Organized Groups

Justice Reinvestment

Broad-Based Smart on Crime Coalition

Texas Penal System and the Shifting Dimensions of Political Debate



Diffusion of Smart on Crime Policy Ideas

Ohio Seeks Technical Assistance

Policy Learning among Conservatives in Ohio


Shifting Political Environment

Return of the Structural Injunction

Prison Realignment in California

Evaluating the Smart on Crime Movement

De-Incarceration and Crime

Is the Glass Half Full or Half Empty?



About the Author

Garrick Percival is an assistant professor of political science and director of the Institute for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement at San José State University. His work focuses on American politics, primarily the nexus between crime policy, racial politics, and inequality at the state and local levels of government. His work has appeared in State Politics and Policy Quarterly, Social Science Quarterly, Political Research Quarterly, Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, and Policy Studies Journal, among other outlets. He teaches courses at San José State University in state and local government, public policy, and American politics. He earned his B.A. and M.A. degrees from San Diego State University and his Ph.D. in political science from the University of California, Riverside.

Subject Categories

BISAC Subject Codes/Headings:
BUSINESS & ECONOMICS / Government & Business
LAW / Criminal Law / General
POLITICAL SCIENCE / Public Policy / General