The case for reforming criminal sentencing laws is beginning to resonate across the country, even with some conservatives. They’re concerned our current methods of dealing with criminals are too costly and too inefficient at reducing criminal behavior.
Law-and-order types have nothing to be ashamed of. They led an important movement to crack down on crime a few decades ago. Americans then were fed up with exploding crime rates and soft-headed judges. Laws to make sentencing harsher and more consistent resulted in sharply rising prison populations and, more importantly, reduced crime rates. Victims finally gained enforceable rights. Citizens became safer.
But over time problems have developed with our incarceration-oriented methods of punishment. It is hideously expensive. Arizona’s population has increased 150 percent since 1970, while our prison population rose a whopping 1,000 percent. Spending for prisons has gone from 5 percent to 11 percent of general fund expenditures, which is even more impressive in the context of how much more we spend for everything else, too. Prisons received $949 million in 2011 appropriations, while budget analysts project $975 million will be needed for new prison construction under existing sentencing guidelines.
Although that’s tough to deal with in today’s economic climate, none of it would matter if it were truly necessary for public safety. But that may simply no longer be the case.
For one thing, we don’t do a very good job of distinguishing between bad guys who have to be locked up versus those who have broken the law but whose behavior can be adequately monitored and controlled without incarceration. For example, Mesa state Rep. Cecil Ash, a leader in sentencing reform, tells of a young man who stole a $200 bicycle. He received an eight-year minimum sentence — and the judge had no choice because he had a prior conviction for similar petty crime. So taxpayers spent $200,000 incarcerating this kid who had the poor judgment to commit a $200 property crime. Worse, he spent those eight years in an environment highly likely to turn a foolish youngster into a career criminal. There must be a better way.
Several states, including Texas, are showing the way to saving money and lowering recidivism rates by rationalizing sentences. The key strategy is to provide probation and early parole for selected low-level offenders. This allows non-violent, non-dangerous offenders to remain in the community and to be self-responsible rather than wards of the state. That in turn increases the likelihood that the offender will be able to pay restitution to deserving victims. And, of course, the state saves money, since incarceration is up to five times more expensive than outside supervision.
Mississippi, not known for being soft on crime, reduced its adult prison population by 1,233 persons last year, at a time when most states reported increases. Along with other measures, they reduced the minimum time before parole eligibility from 85 percent to 25 percent of the full sentence. Remarkably, their recidivism rate was 0.2 percent for these early release parolees, compared with 10.4 percent nationally.
So how did Mississippi save money and reduce crime at the same time? One answer is improved tools to determine which inmates are good early release candidates. Modern techniques assess not only behavior in prison, but employment record, nature of criminal activity, psychological evaluations and other inputs.
Another factor is that “home arrest” with tamper-proof anklets and updated tracking equipment provides virtually unlimited ability to monitor and control parolees’ activities. Also, some states are seeing performance improvements when they incentivize probation and parole supervisors to reduce recidivism.
Some conservatives have concerns with the concept of mitigating sentences, even though Gov. Rick Perry and former Education Secretary Bill Bennett are among the advocates. But this isn’t about feeling sorry for prisoners nor questioning the morality of their punishment.
This is a hard-headed calculation of what policies do the best job of curbing criminal behavior in a society where millions of young men are raised without fathers or normal socializing influences. Our state simply doesn’t have the money to maintain thousands of dependents when it doesn’t serve any useful purpose.
• East Valley resident Tom Patterson (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a retired physician and former state senator