#374 Too Many Prisoners

Date: Fri, 11 Jul 2008
Subject: #374 Too Many Prisoners


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DrugSense FOCUS Alert #374 – Friday, 11 July 2008

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Pubdate: Fri, 11 Jul 2008
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Page: A16
Copyright: 2008 The Washington Post Company


States Should Stop Warehousing Nonviolent Offenders.

TWO REPORTS by the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics
show that the rate of growth in the prison and jail populations of the
United States has slowed slightly but that the country still has the
dubious distinction of being the largest jailer in the world. As of
June 30, 2007, the country held roughly 2.3 million people behind
bars, either in local or state jails or in federal prisons.

The cost of housing and caring for inmates has been astronomical, an
estimated $55 billion annual expense for taxpayers, according to the
Pew Center on the States. The bloated number of inmates has been
particularly painful for states, some of which have been forced to cut
spending for higher education to fund corrections programs. As a
result, California is considering an overhaul of its prison policies,
as are Kentucky, Mississippi, Rhode Island and South Carolina.

This fiscal crisis should be a wake-up call for all states. Tough
sentences for murder, rape and the like are unquestionably necessary
and contributed to a drop in such crimes over the past two decades.
But prisons should be focused on holding the most dangerous criminals
rather than on warehousing nonviolent, first-time offenders.

States should consider, as New Jersey is, redirecting nonviolent,
first-time drug offenders to rehabilitation programs. Like California,
states should also debate early release for the most well-behaved
inmates who have no violence in their records — an approach that
provides an incentive for good behavior. And states should consider
reducing harsh penalties for nonviolent drug offenses. Some states are
considering eliminating parole and thus saving the cost of employing
agents to provide the supervision. They should be careful; oversight
of recently released prisoners can be critical in keeping them on track.

On a national level, Congress should continue to press ahead with
legislation to reduce the sentencing disparity between convictions for
crack and powder cocaine; the guidelines call for a person convicted
of possessing five grams of crack cocaine to serve the same mandatory
minimum sentence as someone caught with 500 grams of powder cocaine.
The disparity has, among other things, led to a disproportionate
number of African Americans behind bars for possession of relatively
small quantities of cocaine. Modest reductions in the federal
sentencing guidelines for crack have brought some balance to the
penalties, but more needs to be done.


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