Pubdate: Wed, 19 Mar 2014
Source: Chicago Tribune (IL)
Copyright: 2014 Chicago Tribune Company
Bookmark: (Incarceration)
Bookmark: (Mandatory Minimum Sentencing)


It's about what you'd expect in a liberal state controlled by 
Democrats: The legislature reduced penalties for drug and property 
crime, spent more money on community supervision of offenders and 
closed three prisons in three years. But it didn't happen in 
California or Massachusetts. It happened in deep-red Texas.

Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican, has said things like "Obama's 
socialist policies are bankrupting America." But when it comes to 
crime and punishment, he thinks blindly harsh policies are also 
unaffordable. "We are not a softon-crime state, but I hope we get the 
reputation of being a smart-oncrime state," he said at the recent 
Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington. "You want to 
talk about real conservative governance, shut a prison down."

That approach has not unleashed hordes of thugs to prey on innocent 
Texans. In fact, the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation 
reports, recidivism has plunged and the state has its lowest crime 
rate since 1968.

This is one of the rare areas where bipartisanship is flourishing. 
Attorney General Eric Holder has called for reducing the prison 
sentences for federal drug crimes, which account for half of all 
federal inmates. In 2010, both houses of Congress voted 
overwhelmingly to reduce the disparity in punishment for users of 
crack cocaine and powder cocaine, which penalized crack possession 
more severely than possession of a similar amount of powder.

The two parties come from different places. Many Democrats point to 
the disproportionate impact of incarceration among African-Americans, 
who are four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana 
possession even though they use the drug at no higher rates than 
whites. Democrats think treatment and education get short shrift in 
turning criminals around.

Many Republicans have decided the cost of putting more and more 
people in prison has gotten too high to pay. What happened, Sen. John 
Cornyn, R-Texas, told The New York Times, "was that we built so many 
prisons people began to ask the question, 'Can we afford thisUKP' " 
Christian conservatives also stress the importance of allowing for 
the possibility of redemption.

In the works now is federal legislation that would modestly curtail 
penalties for drug crimes across the board. The new formula would 
reduce the average prison sentence for these offenses from 62 months 
to 51 months.

The latter amount of time should still be adequate to serve the needs 
of justice and deterrence. But the reduction will free up dollars 
that could be spent on things like mental health treatment and 
rehabilitation services that would help prevent recidivism.

The general idea of reducing our reliance on incarceration is a good 
one, so long as it focuses on nonviolent offenders. In Illinois, a 
program to curb prison overcrowding provided for the early release of 
1,754 inmates, including some violent ones. Gov. Pat Quinn had to 
suspend the program after his own review panel concluded it "failed 
to accomplish the overriding goals of the State's Code of 
Corrections: protecting the public's safety and restoring inmates to 
useful citizenship."

That should be a lesson, and not just for Illinois. Done wrong, 
reducing sentences can be dangerous and costly. Done right, it can 
save money and reduce crime. Some states have shown the way to do it 
right, and Congress should follow their lead.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom