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States Reconsider Crime Policies

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Posted On: March 4, 2003          Updated On: March 06, 2003
© Terence T. Gorski, 2001

Summary & Comment: Even as the supreme court supported the three strikes legislation that is largely responsible for our growing prison population, leadership in many states is reconsidering its get tough policies on drugs and crime. There is growing recognition that our state and national policies have reflected a "get tough and be dumb" policy that has had negative impact on millions of people, crippled state and national budgets, and hurt local communities and economies. In order to effectively contain the costs of enforcement while promoting public safety states need to learn how to "get tough and be smart" by focusing on low cost yet highly effective alternatives to incarceration that can help addicted people and their families while promoting public safety and building the strength and resiliency of our communities. This is all part of newly emerging trend called "the new recovery revolution."

Terence T. Gorski

States Reconsider Crime Policies
David Crary, Associated Press
March 4, 2003

Prosecutors are uneasy; longtime advocates of sentencing reform are blinking in amazement. After years of tough-on-crime measures that boosted America's prison population to 2 million, politicians in many states are reversing course.

Desperate to avert projected deficits, legislatures nationwide have curtailed corrections spending - or are at least considering it - by releasing inmates early, closing prisons, diverting drug offenders to treatment programs and moderating tough sentencing laws. The appetite for building ever more prisons has faded.

''Our efforts to provide for the public safety must encompass more than simply locking more people up for longer periods,'' said Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. ''If that's the extent of our strategy, we'll go broke.''

That kind of talk - from a conservative Republican - is an exhilarating change for critics of hardline corrections policies.

''Legislators don't like to admit they made a mistake, but politically they've got more cover now,'' said Mark Mauer, assistant director of a Washington-based group advocating alternatives to imprisonment. ''It comes down to saving money on prisons or increasing class size at their kids' schools.''

For more than a decade, groups like Mauer's Sentencing Project protested with little effect as states responded to the high crime rates of the 1980s by building new prisons and toughening sentences. Petty thieves received life terms under California's ''three strikes, you're out'' law, while ''soft on crime'' became a dreaded epithet for politicians. The number of offenders in America's prisons and jails soared from fewer than 1.2 million in 1990 to more than 2 million in 2000.

Now, attitudes toward drug use have softened, crime rates have dropped and state budgets - flush in the '90s - are in disarray.

''In 23 years in the field, this is the most receptive atmosphere I've seen,'' said Vincent Schiraldi of the Washington-based Justice Policy Institute, an ally of the Sentencing Project.

''We're trying to seize on this moment,'' said Kara Gotsch, policy coordinator of the American Civil Liberties Union's Prison Project. ''We've been talking about these ideas for so many years, and now - because of the financial crisis - legislators on both sides of the aisle are enacting these exact policies.''

So pervasive is the budget crisis that reforms of prison and sentencing policies are unfolding even in states that prided themselves on get-tough policies.

South Carolina's Corrections Department has suggested moneysaving options that could free up to 4,000 inmates, including restarting a furlough program and emergency releases of nonviolent offenders. In Oklahoma, a state commission has recommended reducing sentences for drug possession and strengthening community-based substance abuse programs.

''Every act does not necessarily require putting people in the penitentiary,'' said Dick Wilkerson, an Oklahoma state senator. ''There's a misconception that community corrections are a bunch of people sitting around in a circle singing 'Kumbaya.'''

In Arkansas, Huckabee wants to divert more drug violators into treatment programs and find ways to handle parole violators without automatically returning them to prison. Law enforcement officials remain wary.

''You can't lock up everyone,'' said Chuck Lange, director of the Arkansas Sheriffs Association. ''But there are a group of people, they just have to be incarcerated. Our trick in law enforcement is to decide which group you fall into.''

St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch, president-elect of the National District Attorneys Association, said he and many colleagues are deeply concerned that budget-cutters will take dangerous risks.

''Crime is down because we put people in prison,'' he said. ''Yes, it's expensive to put them there, but it's expensive when they come out and commit crimes.''

McCulloch said prosecutors are open to treatment as an option for nonviolent drug offenders, but noted that such programs work only if well-funded.

''Our responsibility as prosecutors is to see to it we're not endangering people by making moves that may be great at saving money but could get somebody killed,'' he said.

Reform groups, amid their excitement, worry that some states will accelerate inmate releases without bolstering support programs that would help reduce recidivism.

''I'm afraid they'll just dump these people out on the streets without support,'' said Herbert Hoelter, director of the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives.

In Kentucky, many prosecutors and police officials were outraged when Gov. Paul Patton - frustrated by a budget impasse - released 883 inmates in December and January several months before their sentences ended. Four were arrested within days of release; one was charged with rape, another with robbing several banks.

Chastened by those crimes, Patton halted the early releases, but said they might resume if legislators fail to address budget problems.

Victims' rights advocates in Kentucky had mixed feelings.

''We understand, in tough times for states, there's an urge to look for places to do belt-tightening,'' said Marcia Roth, executive director of the Mary Byron Foundation, a victim-support group. ''But we also know early releases can lead to tremendous stress for crime victims.''

One of the most sweeping reform proposals is on the legislative agenda in Washington state, where get-tough laws and citizen initiatives since 1990 doubled annual prison spending to more than $1 billion and filled prisons past capacity.

To cut costs, Democratic Gov. Gary Locke has proposed shortening the sentences of hundreds of inmates convicted of drug and property crimes, and eliminating post-release supervision of thousands of low-risk offenders.

''Last year, the legislature wouldn't touch this,'' said Joe Lehman, Locke's secretary of corrections. ''This year, given the magnitude of the budget difficulties, there's much more of a dialogue about how can we make it work.''

''We're mindful of the risk,'' Lehman added. ''This is not about developing what you would do ideally - but given the diminished resources, we've developed criteria which we believe are sound.''

In some states, cutbacks have angered prison employees. A guards' union in Ohio, for example, is opposing a decision to close the 88-year-old Lima Correctional Institution to save $25 million a year.

In New York, the state budget crisis may help speed the demise of the so-called Rockefeller drug laws, which have endured despite mounting criticism. Enacted in the early 1970s, the laws can subject first-time offenders to 15 years to life in prison if convicted of selling as little as 2 ounces of a drug or possessing as little as 4 ounces.

Faced with a projected shortfall of $11.5 billion, Republican Gov. George Pataki and lawmakers of both parties are interested in easing the laws to help reduce prison costs. There is no consensus yet on the scope of the overhaul.

The reforms will be welcome - though late - for Jan Warren, 51, who spent more than 12 years in a New York prison for a cocaine possession offense that might have incurred a one-year sentence, or even probation, in some states.

Now an advocate for women in prison, with a job at the City University of New York, she calculates the state paid more than $400,000 to imprison her from 1987 to 2000.

''We're throwing people away,'' Warren said. ''The consequences of incarcerating so many people, it's costing us more money in the long run.''

AP-ES-03-04-03 1336EST

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