Pubdate: Sun, 10 Nov 2013
Source: Roanoke Times (VA)
Copyright: 2013 Roanoke Times


There is growing bipartisan support for escaping the cell-block money

Virginians who didn't blink at the time may have noticed that state
sentencing reform got a quick twirl from both major party candidates
during the gubernatorial campaign - though no dance partner.

In a state that in 1994 sent George Allen to the governor's mansion on
a promise to end parole, talk of abandoning mandatory minimums for
some offenses creates barely a ripple as we head into 2014.

That's because, in the state and the nation, the politics of crime has
come up against its own hard reality: It costs too much to keep 2.4
million people in prison, as the U.S. does. Times are hard.

Finding a way out of the cell-block money trap might offer warring
Republicans and Democrats a patch of common ground. They'd do well to
cultivate it, particularly in Congress.

An Urban Institute report released last week sharpens the view of
where the country is heading if it continues the trajectory it is on.
"Stemming the Tide: Strategies to Reduce the Growth and Cut the Cost
of the Federal Prison System" confines its analysis to federal
policy, where lawmakers would do well to draw on its suggestions for 

The number of federal inmates has grown almost tenfold since 1980,
from 25,000 to 219,000 today, an unsustainable rate mainly driven, the
authors note, by long drug sentences, the result of congressionally
imposed mandatory minimums even for nonviolent crimes.

Consequently, prisons are operating at 35 to 40 percent over capacity.
The most dangerous facilities, where most inmates have histories of
violence, are even more overcrowded. High-security prisons operated at
51 percent over capacity in FY 2012, and medium-security at 47 percent
over capacity.

Plus, "Prison staffing has not kept up with population growth," though
high inmate-to-staff ratios are linked to increases in serious assaults.

Grim. But even at that, the prison system's budget request for FY 2014
is $6.9 billion - more than a quarter of the Justice Department's
entire budget, a proportion that is projected to grow.

Simply warehousing so many people sops up most of the money, which
would be better spent on programs to keep them from reoffending and
ever having to come back again.

President Nixon declared a "war on drugs" in 1971, but the mass
imprisonment bedeviling the nation started under President Reagan in
the 1980s and finally is being seen for the failure it is.

Fear of being labeled "soft of crime" seems to have lost its political
potency, and there's growing support in Congress for reducing
mandatory minimum penalties - and a growing awareness, even, that
intruding on judicial discretion does not serve justice nearly so well
as it serves selfish political ends.
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