As our country reckons with the damage caused by our over-reliance on punishment as a response to crime and the continuing legacy of racism, mayors and other city leaders who are working to reimagine justice policy should apply the principle of parsimony to guide their decision making.
Our new report from the Columbia Justice Lab’s Square One Project, “The Power of Parsimony,” explores how the principle of parsimony can be applied to critique excessive prison sentences, collateral consequences of criminal convictions, and solitary confinement — three practices that exemplify the “era of punitive excess.” But the parsimony framework can also be useful in examining criminal justice policies that lie more squarely in the purview of leaders of U.S. cities.
But first, what is parsimony?
Parsimony is a historical legal concept that holds that the state should exercise only the most limited intrusion into a person’s liberty to achieve a broader societal goal. If parsimony were applied to the justice system, this approach would result in punishments that are no greater than necessary, and define punishments that cross that line as unjust, illegitimate, and potentially even exercises of state violence.
Every justice decision can be viewed through the lens of parsimony, which poses two questions: Does the limitation on liberty serve a “legitimate social purpose”? Is the specific liberty deprivation “reasonably necessary” to achieve that purpose?
How city leaders can apply the principle of parsimony:
1. Stop and Frisk Policing
Currently, many police departments engage in stop and frisk practices that disproportionately target Black and Brown people, obstruct liberty, and violate principles of racial equity. The parsimony principle provides another rationale for limiting this abuse of state power. Viewed through this lens, police departments would limit the use of stop and frisk to those few instances where the tactic would actually be necessary for promoting safety or stopping a crime in progress.
2. Pretrial Detention and Supervised Release
A number of local jurisdictions have committed to bail reform, which means finding new ways to reduce the level of unnecessary and unjust pretrial detention and limiting the use of money bail — a goal consistent with the parsimony principle. To reduce jail populations, jurisdictions have embraced supervised release as a preferable alternative to pretrial detention. But it must also be guided by the principles of parsimony to ensure that supervision is limited, since too much supervision could be an intrusion on an individual’s liberty and may not be necessary to achieve public safety.
3. Conditions of Confinement and Solitary Confinement
We encourage city leaders to apply the principle of parsimony to examine the conditions in which individuals are held in jail. Cities can ask a simple question: Could less restrictive policies in jails achieve the same policy goals? Many correctional practices would fail this test, particularly the expanded use of solitary confinement. Using the parsimony framing, we would realize that most uses of solitary confinement during pretrial detention constitute extreme deprivations of individual liberty that fail to promote safety. These practices are therefore unjust, illegitimate and may even constitute state violence.
City leaders committed to parsimony would do well to advocate with judicial and jail officials to ensure appropriate use of supervised release as well as the least restrictive conditions of confinement. In a world in which we took the principle of parsimony seriously, we would put liberty at the center of every debate about criminal justice policy, establish principled limits on the power of government over our lives, and finally move away from policies that promote punishment and retribution and toward a new vision of justice that values human dignity, healing, reconciliation and community well-being.
Subscribe to NLC’s City Justice Newsletter to keep up to date on the latest work cities, towns and villages are doing across the country to reimagine public safety in communities.
About the Authors:
Daryl Atkinson is Co-Director of Forward Justice and is a member of the Square One Project’s Executive Session on the Future of Justice Policy.
Jeremy Travis is the Executive Vice President of Criminal Justice at Arnold Ventures and Co-Founder of the Square One Project. Reach out to him at JTravis@arnoldventures.org.