Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Reform Corrections Before More Republicans Go to Prison

After several decades of experiences with mandatory minimum sentencing, we must ask whether it is the most effective means to deal with criminal behavior. It does not appear to reduce recidivism. Instead, it seems to be sentencing young people to spend their educational years learning from other prisoners how to become better prisoners. It appears to have high social costs; a large number of fathers are torn from their families for many years and we are seeing families raised without financial or emotional support from the fathers (and, increasingly, mothers as the number of female inmates are rapidly grown). It definitely is having huge costs in terms of dollars; spending on corrections is becoming an increasingly larger share of how tax dollars are spent. In these fiscally difficult times, the requirement that funds be spent on people mandated to be in prison means there are increasingly fewer dollars remaining for education, social services, or (for conservatives) tax reductions.

The question as to whether mandatory minimum sentencing is effective is vitally important. Prior, judges had greater discretion to listen to the facts of a case and to judge people convicted of crimes. Granted, judges made mistakes and sometimes the system was abused. Yet, taking away that discretion may have removed an important element that generally used to work within our judicial system. Often there are circumstances that the hard facts of the law could not have foretold but a judge can see.

Judges often are better able than most anyone else to recognize who should be removed from society and who, for some crimes, may be better suited for an alternative sentence. There are growing numbers of alternatives presented us with electronic monitoring that may restrict a person to a home and a workplace, thus allowing that person to be earning a living and supporting a family. Placing a young person in prison for a long term may instead destroy that person’s chances at a reasonable future.

Most crimes are committed by young people. Fortunately, except for those hardened career criminals, maturity takes over and young criminals, with age, move away from crime. What mandatory minimum sentencing has done, in many cases, is taken away the judicial system’s ability to distinguish between either the behavior of a career criminal or an immature young person made a bad choice. This results in leaving these young people with the potential of developing only one job skill: remaining a criminal as learned from fellow prisoners. This serves no one’s interest.

The social costs of mandatory minimum sentencing is causing even past supporters to reverse their opinions. We have seen a generation of people brought up with a parent put away in prison, and while scholars differ on the exact effects, everyone agrees the end results are not good.

Finally, it is becoming too costly to keep building and operating more prisons. Prison health care, what little of it there is, is becoming both extremely costly plus the difficulty of providing health care in prison is causing significant health care issues within prisons. As prisoners are being sentences for longer terms, taking care of geriatric prisoners is often becoming an impossible task.

It is time to seriously ask these questions and look more towards alternative sentences and allowing greater judicial discretion. We should not fear the “tough on crime” supporters of more mandatory sentencing. Doing this, and proclaiming this is indeed being tough on crime, because it is more effective in combating crime, is what we need more leaders to do.


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