Pubdate: Sun, 27 Apr 2008
Source: Miami Herald (FL)
Copyright: 2008 The Miami Herald
Bookmark: (Mandatory Minimum Sentencing)


Imprisoning Felons Comes at a High Cost

Our country has the unenviable distinction of holding more people in
prisons than any other country in the world. In the United States, 2.3
million people are in prison -- a number that represents nearly 25
percent of the world's prison population, according to a report last
week in The New York Times. The number is staggering, and it calls
into question the recent hardening of attitudes and policies toward
crime in America.

The data suggest that local, state and national leaders should be asking
if the policies are working as expected. Also: At what cost do we
continue with them?

Changing Attitudes

The United States, which has only 5 percent of the world's population,
puts more people in jail than does China, which has four times as many
people, according to data collected by the International Center for
Prison Studies at King's College, London. Crime experts and legal
scholars interviewed by The Times say that the high-incarceration rate
has helped to reduce crime in the United States, even though it isn't
clear by how much.

As a result of tougher laws that began in the mid-1970s, U.S. crime
rates began to decline. In the 1990s, crime dropped by more than 40
percent, according to the National Institute of Justice. Crime
fighters now have many weapons, including mandatory sentencing, better
law enforcement and improved technologies such as DNA analysis and
computer forensics. An illustration of changing attitudes in how the
justice system has changed in attitude is the experience of the late
Miami-Dade Circuit Court Judge Joe Durant, a former prosecutor.

In 1977, Judge Durant was considered one of the brightest minds on the
bench. But a single decision that year earned him a reputation for
leniency. Judge Durant sentenced former Miami Dolphin players Don
Reese and Randy Crowder to a year in jail and five-years' probation
for selling cocaine to undercover police. The sentence was reasonable,
but out of step with the times. A news magazine called the judge,
"Let 'em go, Joe." The nickname stuck and led to Judge Durant's
defeat in the next election.

Today, in contrast, long sentences are a distinguishing factor in
America's high incarceration rate. We put more people in jail and for
longer periods, including for nonviolent crimes, such as for writing
bad checks and possessing drugs. In America, more than half the people
arrested test positive for illegal drugs -- and, if convicted, they go
to jail or prison. In the rest of the world, people who commit
nonviolent crimes are less likely to go to jail and, if they are
incarcerated, will serve less time than someone similarly charged here.

Better Policies

In Florida, we know first-hand about the high cost of incarceration.
Our prisons were so packed in the 1990s that the courts ordered
thousands of inmates freed to ease overcrowding. Since then, Florida
has built prisons at an accelerated pace and, even in this year of
budget cuts, lawmakers are searching for $400 million to build more
prison beds.

Yet the cost we pay for jailing so many people, especially nonviolent
offenders, involves more than the cash outlay, even though that is
considerable. We pay a high price in broken families, lost wages,
destroyed careers and broken lives.

With better policies, we should be able to take advantage of the
deterrent effect of tough laws without the high cost of incarceration.
For example, pretrial-intervention programs help to steer people clear
of crime without sending them to jail. NIJ researchers have found that
programs like drug courts are effective in reducing recidivism and
prison costs. Research has shown that well-structured programs
involving close supervision and case management can prevent people
from returning to a life of crime.

In Florida, and the country, too, we have shown that we can lock up
people. The challenge now should be to incarcerate those who are a
real threat and rehabilitate those who can be productive members of
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake