Pubdate: Mon, 29 Dec 2003
Source: Charleston Gazette (WV)
Copyright: 2003 Charleston Gazette
Author: Larry Starcher
Bookmark: (Incarceration)
Bookmark: (Mandatory Minimum Sentencing)


The following is a concurring state Supreme Court opinion filed recently.

This case involved a man who stole some very valuable hunting dogs and 
radio equipment, and for this crime he was sentenced to a year in jail. It 
was a rotten crime, although the offender apparently had no previous 
criminal record and it was not a crime of violence. I concur in the court's 
judgment and opinion because the sentence of incarceration was within the 
sentencing judge's discretion.

However, I write separately because the sentence of incarceration in this 
case - although legally permissible - vividly illustrates the most 
important issue facing West Virginia's criminal justice system: our failure 
to use economical, non-incarceration, community-based sanctions for 
criminal misconduct.

West Virginia taxpayers are being required to spend large amounts of money 
on putting people in prisons and jails, at a time when our state's budget 
is said to be in crisis. At the same time, new technology like electronic 
bracelets (even with satellite tracking) will allow us to monitor offenders 
and protect society at a fraction of the cost of incarceration. And instead 
of sitting in a $20,000-a-year cell at the taxpayers' expense, we can get 
our offenders out working, to clean our streets and parks; and paying 
restitution to their victims.

The wasteful, unnecessary use of imprisonment is not limited to West 
Virginia. It is a national problem. In 1974, there were 1,819,000 U.S. 
adults who had at some time been incarcerated in a state or federal prison; 
that was 1.3 percent of our nation's population. Twenty-seven years later, 
in 2001, that number had more than doubled - to 5,618,000, or 2.7 percent.

In 1974, 8.7 percent of black Americans had ever been in prison. In 2001, 
the number is 16.6 percent. If current incarceration rates remain 
unchanged, Bureau of Justice statistics predict that one in three black 
males, one in six Hispanic males, and one in 17 white males will go to 
prison sometime during their lives.

Put another way, at current rates, an astonishing 6.6 percent of all 
persons born in the United States in 2001 will go to state or federal 
prison during their lifetime; this is up from 5.2 percent in 1991, and from 
1.9 percent in 1974.

Are we a safer society than we were in 1974? I don't think so.

These numbers are horrifying. They reflect our society's utterly failed 
reliance on imprisonment to try to deal with the problem of hard drugs, and 
politicians who are playing the knee-jerk politics of fear and vengeance.

We who have worked daily in the criminal justice system know what is needed 
to deal with offenders effectively and economically, and it sure isn't more 

We need more treatment programs for drug addicts, and more day reporting 
centers and community corrections centers.

We need high-tech home confinement and offender monitoring systems, and we 
need a limited amount of secure imprisonment, with good in-house 
rehabilitation services, for the violent people who pose a true danger.

We need to get rid of mandatory minimum sentences, because they clog our 
jails and prisons with offenders who don't need that level of security.

The sentence in this case of a year in jail for a dog-stealer means that 
tens of thousands of dollars of taxpayer money will go to feed, clothe, 
house and give medical care to a person who should be outside, on 
supervised probation, working, to pay his debt to society and to his victim.

Multiply this offender's incarceration sentence by hundreds of other 
similar cases, and we can see why West Virginia is spending money that we 
need - for teachers and nurses and doctors and roads and bridges and 
schools - on wasteful, unnecessary imprisonment.

Starcher is a West Virginia Supreme Court justice.
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