Pubdate: Sun, 06 Jul 2008
Source: Clarion-Ledger, The (Jackson, MS)
Copyright: 2008 The Clarion-Ledger
Bookmark: (Drug Courts)


Gov. Haley Barbour signed a bill into law earlier this  year to
restore common sense to sentencing in the  criminal courts - making
some 7,000 inmates eligible  for parole by relaxing sentencing guidelines.

Senate Bill 2136 relaxed the state's so-called  85-percent rule,
passed in an ill-advised moment in  1994 when the Legislature took the
federal government's  "get tough on crime" challenge and raised it.

The so-called "Truth in Sentencing" law was the result  of a
nationwide push for tougher sentencing, and  Mississippi lawmakers
responded. This newspaper  supported the law. Famous last words: It
seemed like a  good idea at the time.

Unfortunately, Mississippi overreacted, and the law  worked too well.
Congress had told states to pass  tougher laws to continue receiving
federal funds for  prisons.

While the federal mandate was for violent criminals,  Mississippi made
it for all offenders. Mississippi has  been on a prison-building binge
ever since, trying to  keep up with the ever-increasing number of
those  incarcerated: mostly drug-related or nonviolent.

Lawmakers thought they had "solved" the crime problem.  Thinking the
Parole Board would no longer be needed,  they actually proposed
abolishing it in 2000 and  transferring remaining duties to the
Department of  Corrections.

But the 85-percent rule had other consequences. In 1995  - the year it
took effect - Mississippi housed about  12,400 inmates and had a
Corrections budget of about  $119 million. There now are more than
22,000 inmates,  with a $309 million budget.

Now Mississippi needs to take another step toward  controlling the
spiraling costs of housing nonviolent,  first-time offenders by
expanding the successful drug  court programs that are operating in
several  jurisdictions across the state.

DeSoto County Circuit Judge Bobby Chamberlin, a former  state
legislator, makes a passionate case for drug  courts in today's
Perspective section.

Chamberlin emphatically says "drug court works." His  experience has
been echoed by other judges across the  state as a more efficient and
effective means of  dealing with drug crime.

Drug courts are not for repeat offenders or dope  dealers. They aren't
for violent criminals. But they  are a good alternative for offenders
who qualify to  avoid expensive incarceration with hardened criminals.

As Chamberlin explains, drug courts aren't the easy way  out for drug
criminals. Drug courts are a path to  treatment and a meaningful
second chance.

It makes sense - and dollars and cents - to shift  "tough" on crime to
smart on crime. Drug courts must  increasingly become part of the
solution to prison  crowding and ineffective drug treatment in this
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