Sentencing Commission Considering Prison Alternatives for Drug Offenders
Welcome news today in the Washington Post: The U.S. Sentencing Commission is considering alternatives to prison for non-violent, low level drug offenders as well as for some supervised release (parole) violators.
The commission's consideration of alternatives to incarceration reflects its determination to persuade Congress to ease federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws that contributed to explosive growth in the prison population. The laws were enacted in the mid-1980s, principally to address a crime epidemic related to crack cocaine. But in recent years, federal judges, public defenders and probation officials have argued that mandatory sentences imprison first-time offenders unnecessarily and disproportionately affect minorities.
Drug courts and adult developmental programs for parolees have worked in the state system. They are far more cost effective than prison: [More...]
"We are leading the world in incarcerating adults, and that's something Americans need to understand," said Beryl Howell, one of six members of the commission, which drafts federal sentencing guidelines and advises the House and Senate on prison policy. "People should be aware that every tough-on-crime act comes with a price. The average cost [of incarceration] across the country is $24,000 a year per inmate. . . . It's going up far faster than state budgets can keep up."
If the Sentencing Commission adopts changes, they will be submitted to Congress by May 1, 2009. Congress would have until November 1, 2009 to reject them, otherwise they become law.
As to how drug courts work:
At sentencing, a judge gives a nonviolent offender the option of going to prison or committing to a rigorous treatment program, where he or she submits to frequent tests and supervision. The aim is to reduce the 67 percent recidivism rate of addicted offenders.
If the Sentencing Commission adopts these new policies for federal cases, relief will trickle down to the states:
The government has established a discretionary grant program, operated by the Bureau of Justice Assistance, which is distributing $13 million to drug court programs this year.
"Drug courts are the most successful strategy in terms of reducing crime, but they're tremendously underutilized," Huddleston said. "I think a Sentencing Commission recommendation to U.S. courts would create momentum. It'll wake up state legislatures. It's a conversation that should have been had years ago."
It's about time we became smart, rather than just tough, on crime.
.... a study this year by the nonpartisan Pew Center on the States revealed that more than one in 100 American adults are in jail or prison. That study was followed by a Bureau of Justice Statistics report in June that showed that a record 7.2 million people are under supervision in the criminal justice system. The cost, about $45 billion a year, has forced states such as California to export inmates to private prisons as far away as Tennessee.
Who we elect in November could make a difference. The Justice Department will weigh in and if it opposes the changes, will try to convince members of Congress to reject the changes. Right now,
... the Justice Department is open to discussing options that might reduce prison overcrowding and costs, and is waiting to see what the commission recommends, Sedgwick said. "We're not necessarily going to oppose it out of hand, but we say be real careful, we recommend more study," he said.
This is something that Sen. Barack Obama has advocated in the past. Even Joe Biden would support it (He was the sponsor of the Second Chance Act, signed into law by Bush in April, 2008.) Which means an Obama-appointed Attorney General likely will support it. Here's Obama at the Howard University Convocation in September, 2007:
Obama: I think it's time we also took a hard look at the wisdom of locking up some first-time, non-violent drug users for decades. Someone once said that "...long minimum sentences for first-time users may not be the best way to occupy jail space and/or heal people from their disease." That someone was George W. Bush - six years ago. I don't say this very often, but I agree with the President. The difference is, he hasn't done anything about it. When I'm President, I will. We will review these sentences to see where we can be smarter on crime and reduce the blind and counterproductive warehousing of non-violent offenders. And we will give first-time, non-violent drug offenders a chance to serve their sentence, where appropriate, in the type of drug rehabilitation programs that have proven to work better than a prison term in changing bad behavior. So let's reform this system. Let's do what's smart. Let's do what's just.
John McCain? He wants to ratchet up the war on drugs. He pays some lip service to alternative sentences but is so bad on the drug war in general, he's not trustworthy on this issue, particularly given his voting record during the past 20 plus years and his recent statements. Here's a recent speech he gave to Sheriff's outlining his tough on crime record.
As for his characterization of how alternative sentences are working in Arizona, it's just not true.
. In Arizona Prison Crisis: A Call for Smart on Crime Solutions (PDF), a report prepared in 2004 for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, authors Judith Greene and Kevin Pranis point out that Arizona has the highest incarceration rate in the western U.S. and the ninth highest rate in the country.
"Arizona’s high incarceration rate is driven by a rigid mandatory sentencing system that severely restricts judges’ discretion in imposing sentences and crowds prisons with non-violent substance abusers." A majority of Arizona's prisoners, they write, are non-violent offenders, with one-in-five behind bars for drug offenses.
In fact, say Greene and Pranis, in Arizona "[s]entences were longer for drug sales than for many violent crimes. The average sentence imposed for drug sales (4.3 years, including marijuana sales), was longer than the average sentence imposed for assault (four years) or weapons charges (3.8 years) and the same as the average sentence for arson."
Moreover, we should also take steps to address the dramatic rise in incarceration that has occurred over the last two decades. It’s time for us to re-examine the wisdom of locking up some first-time, non-violent drug users for decades. These policies are a significant source of the overcrowding of our prison. As president, I will work to reduce the blind and counterproductive warehousing of non-violent
offenders – individuals who often have mental health and substance abuse problems.
I will give first-time, non-violent offenders the opportunity to serve their sentence, where appropriate, in the type of drug rehabilitation programs that have proven to work better than a prison term in changing bad behavior. And I will support Department of Justice programs that provide grants to state drug courts that supervise treatment programs, and will replicate those drug courts on the federal level.
Bob Barr, whom I also don't trust on the issue due to his past voting record, now says:
I also would review my presidential pardon and commutation powers as a possible means to reduce the number of people in federal prison for non-violent drug offenses. We can no longer afford the human and economic costs of imprisoning so many thousands of people for drug possession. This is the most destructive impact of drug prohibition.
Here's how he voted while in Congress:
- Voted NO on funding for alternative sentencing instead of more prisons. (Jun 2000)
- Voted YES on more prosecution and sentencing for juvenile crime. (Jun 1999)
- Voted NO on maintaining right of habeas corpus in Death Penalty Appeals. (Mar 1996)
- Voted YES on making federal death penalty appeals harder. (Feb 1995)
- More prisons, more enforcement, effective death penalty. (Sep 1994)
- Prevent luxurious conditions in prisons. (Jan 1995)
The Sentencing Commission's announcement of its intent to consider alternative sentences for the May 1, 2009 cycle is here (pdf).
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