Pubdate: Tue, 16 Mar 2010
Source: State, The (SC)
Copyright: 2010 The State
Author: Christopher Scalzo


Efforts to improve the criminal justice system are too often reduced
to political slogans. Proposals labeled "tough" win, while those
branded "soft" lose.

We seem trapped in an "I'm tough - you're soft on crime" debate. It's
an unproductive debate that doesn't tell us whether an idea will
actually improve the criminal justice system.

Even worse, our get-tough-only politics is over-filling our prisons
and costing us more than we can afford.

There is a better approach. Instead of just getting tough, we can get
smart on crime.

What is getting smart on crime?

Getting smart on crime is recognizing that the criminal justice system
is a complex, multifaceted system that cannot be reduced to
one-dimensional solutions. It is thinking about the effectiveness of
our approaches, and how to measure and track them. It is thinking
about costs and ways to get more for the money we spend.

Frankly, it means identifying people who are violent and need to be
incarcerated. But it also involves looking at less-expensive
alternatives to incarceration for non-violent offenders and at ways of
transitioning people from prison back into society.

In an ideal world, getting tough on crime should include all of these
things. But the fear of being labeled soft on crime has paralyzed our
ability to focus on solutions that deliver success.

But "tough" and "soft" are the wrong adjectives to use when discussing
criminal justice reform. Not because we should let crime slide or
coddle criminals, but because neither label sufficiently informs the
debate. They oversimplify the complexity of the criminal justice system.

Where has getting tough gotten us?

We have used the getting-tough approach to increase sentences for
violent and non-violent crimes. We've used it to eliminate parole and
probation for many crimes, including non-violent offenses. The result
is that we are incarcerating more people than ever before for longer
sentences at costs we cannot afford. Yet we have not seen a
significant reduction in recidivism.

For a year, the state's Sentencing Reform Commission studied our
criminal justice system. It recently issued a report on its findings
and recommended solutions.

According to this report, our prison population increased from 9,137
in 1983 to more than 25,000 today. Almost half of the prison
population - 49 percent - are people being held for non-violent
crimes. It costs us about $14,000 per year per prisoner.

This explosion in prison population has come with a hefty price tag.
According to the report, in 1983 we spent $64 million on our prisons.
Today we spend 500 percent more: $394 million.

Without changes, it is projected that in five years we will add more
than 3,200 prisoners to the system. That will cost an additional $141
million and may require us to spend $317 million more to build a new

We are running out of space to house violent criminals who need to be
in prison because we are incarcerating too many non-violent offenders.
We are also running out of money to pay for it. The solution to our
problem is to stop using the get-tough approach as the only answer.

The recommendations found in the report on sentencing reform take a
smart approach to crime. A bill has been crafted based on those
recommendations and is pending in the Legislature. S.1154- the Omnibus
Crime Reduction and Sentencing Reform Act of 2010 - offers smart
solutions to some of our problems.

The bill gets tough, but in a smart way. In specific and necessary
areas, punishment is increased. For example, it increases penalties
for crimes where death results and reclassifies 24 crimes as violent

But getting smart on crime also means understanding that we need to go
beyond only getting tough. S.1154 takes a system-wide,
multi-dimensional approach. It adds sentencing tools to the judge's
sentencing toolbox - tools such as home incarceration and electronic
monitoring - without removing prison as a tool should a judge find
prison necessary. It requires use of evidence-based practices to help
lower recidivism rates, and it provides on-going oversight of its many

The bill is comprehensive and cost-conscious. It relies on data and
research to offer smart solutions.

Just getting tough on crime has cost us more money than we can afford
- - and hasn't provided us the results we want. We need a better way. We
need to get smart on crime. I encourage everyone to support S.1154;
it's an important smart step.

Mr. Scalzo is president of the S.C. Public Defender Association and
deputy public defender for the Greenville Office of the Public Defender. 
- ---
MAP posted-by: Richard Lake