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What is 'Parsimony' and How Can It Transform Our Justice System?

A powerful new report from Columbia University’s Square One Project argues that applying the principle of parsimony can 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.

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As abolitionists, activists, legislators, and system stakeholders are bringing new energy and urgency to the challenge of transforming the country’s response to crime, a new report from the Columbia University’s Square One Project argues that the principle of parsimony can become a defining value of future justice policy.

The Power of Parsimony,” authored by Daryl V. Atkinson and Jeremy Travis, applies the principle of parsimony — a historical legal concept that holds the state should exercise only the most limited intrusion into a person’s liberty to achieve a broader goal — to the realities of today’s criminal 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.

In their paper, Atkinson and Travis apply the principle of parsimony to three specific practices — excessive prison sentences, collateral consequences of criminal convictions, and solitary confinement — to demonstrate how each is excessively punitive. The principle of parsimony can also be used to analyze other aspects of the criminal justice system, including mass supervision, stop and frisk policing, and pretrial detention. Parsimony also critiques the criminalization of drug use, vagrancy, and sex work as an unwarranted extension of the criminal law.

“The American criminal legal system must adopt new guiding principles, moving away from punishment and retribution, toward the primacy of parsimony and human dignity,” said Daryl V. Atkinson, co-director of Forward Justice and co-author of the paper. “As we continue to interrogate the proper role of the state, the parsimony principle offers a necessary restraint mechanism to ensure we never return to an era of excessive punitiveness.”

"If we took the principle of parsimony seriously, we would place liberty at the center of every debate about justice policy,” said Jeremy Travis, executive vice president of criminal justice at Arnold Ventures and co-author of the paper. “We would insist that every limitation on liberty meet a strict test: Is this exercise of state power reasonably necessary to achieve a legitimate purpose? The result would be a profound reduction in the reach of the criminal justice system."

If we took the principle of parsimony seriously, we would place liberty at the center of every debate about justice policy.
Jeremy Travis executive vice president of criminal justice at Arnold Ventures and co-author of the paper

The principle of parsimony is rooted in social contract theory under which society provides its residents the benefits, including safety, that enable people to thrive, in return for which residents agree to abide by society’s laws. Atkinson and Travis point out that, because there has never been a valid social contract between the United States and Black, Indigenous, and other dispossessed communities, coming to terms with this history is a precondition to the full realization of the power of the principle of parsimony. The legitimate exercise of state power, they argue, requires a realization of the reciprocal obligations of the social contract: in other words, what dispossessed communities are owed by the state.

The principle of parsimony can be an integral part of the process of “reimagining justice” that is now underway in our country. The principle of parsimony, according to Atkinson and Travis, has immediate application to the current debates over justice policy. If every decision — from policing tactics to sentencing to parole revocation — were viewed through this lens, society’s aspirations for justice would be better served.

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