Pubdate: Mon, 14 Jul 2008
Source: Evansville Courier & Press (IN)
Copyright: 2008 The Evansville Courier Company
Bookmark: (Mandatory Minimum Sentencing)


The Issue: United States Is World's Largest Jailer

Two reports by the Justice Department's Bureau of  Justice Statistics
show that the rate of growth in the  prison and jail populations of
the United States has  slowed slightly but that the country still has
the  dubious distinction of being the largest jailer in the  world. As
of June 30, 2007, the country held roughly  2.3 million people behind
bars, either in local or  state jails or in federal prisons.

The cost of housing and caring for inmates has been  astronomical, an
estimated $55 billion annual expense  for taxpayers, according to the
Pew Center on the  States. The bloated number of inmates has been
particularly painful for states, some of which have  been forced to
cut spending for higher education to  fund corrections programs.

As a result, California is considering an overhaul of its prison
policies, as are Kentucky, Mississippi, Rhode Island and South Carolina.

This fiscal crisis should be a wake-up call for all states. Tough
sentences for murder, rape and the like are unquestionably necessary
and contributed to a drop in such crimes over the past two decades.
But prisons should be focused on holding the most dangerous criminals
rather than on warehousing nonviolent, first-time offenders.

States should consider, as New Jersey is, redirecting nonviolent,
first-time drug offenders to rehabilitation programs. Like California,
states should also debate early release for the most well-behaved
inmates who have no violence in their records -- an approach that
provides an incentive for good behavior. And states should consider
reducing harsh penalties for nonviolent drug offenses. Some states are
considering eliminating parole and thus saving the cost of employing
agents to provide the supervision. They should be careful; oversight
of recently released prisoners can be critical in keeping them on track.

On a national level, Congress should continue to press ahead with
legislation to reduce the sentencing disparity between convictions for
crack and powder cocaine; the guidelines call for a person convicted
of possessing five grams of crack cocaine to serve the same mandatory
minimum sentence as someone caught with 500 grams of powder cocaine.
The disparity has, among other things, led to a disproportionate
number of African-Americans behind bars for possession of relatively
small quantities of cocaine. Modest reductions in the federal
sentencing guidelines for crack have brought some balance to the
penalties, but more needs to be done. 
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