Cole

The Washington Times Daily - - Opinion -

have seen sig­nif­i­cant re­forms across the coun­try. States from Texas to Cal­i­for­nia to New York have re­duced manda­tory min­i­mum sen­tences, soft­ened “three-strikes” laws, or es­tab­lished drug-of­fender di­ver­sion pro­grams. The num­ber of peo­ple in­car­cer­ated in state pris­ons na­tion­wide has dropped for three years in a row. Cal­i­for­nia, New York and New Jersey have each re­duced their prison pop­u­la­tions by about 20 per­cent in the past decade — with no in­creases in crime.

In an era of height­ened par­ti­san pol­i­tics, re­form is a rare bi­par­ti­san is­sue. At­tor­ney Gen­eral Eric H. Holder Jr. and Repub­li­can Sens. Rand Paul and Mike Lee don’t of­ten see eye to eye, but they have all ad­vo­cated mea­sures to re­duce manda­tory min­i­mums. The Amer­i­can Leg­isla­tive Ex­change Coun­cil, which pro­motes free-mar­ket law re­forms in the states, has iden­ti­fied re­duc­ing prison over­crowd­ing as one of its pri­or­i­ties. Re­gard­less of one’s pol­i­tics, no one can be proud of the fact that the world’s wealth­i­est so­ci­ety locks up more of its cit­i­zens per capita than any other na­tion.

Most of the re­forms thus far have fo­cused on non­vi­o­lent of­fend­ers, es­pe­cially drug-law vi­o­la­tors — and for good rea­son. The large-scale in­car­cer­a­tion of low-level drug of­fend­ers has had lit­tle im­pact on the drug trade; street-cor­ner sell­ers and couri­ers are eas­ily re­placed. In­car­cer­a­tion im­poses sub­stan­tial costs on so­ci­ety at large, though, and on the life chances and fam­i­lies of those locked up.

If we are to tackle the in­car­cer­a­tion rate ef­fec­tively, we need to fo­cus not only on those who re­ceive the short­est sen­tences, but also on those who re­ceive the long­est sen­tences — lif­ers. Even as in­car­cer­a­tion rates have be­gun to fall, life sen­tences have in­creased. One in nine pris­on­ers in the United States is now serv­ing a life sen­tence, in­clud­ing 10,000 serv­ing life for a non­vi­o­lent of­fense (of­ten the “third strike” un­der a three-strikes law). Nearly a third of the life sen­tences are im­posed with no pos­si­bil­ity of pa­role.

While most of th­ese in­di­vid­u­als have com­mit­ted se­ri­ous of­fenses, the in­creased re­liance on life sen­tences is coun­ter­pro­duc­tive. Crim­i­nal of­fenses tend to drop with age. As of­fend­ers grow older, their in­car­cer­a­tion is in­creas­ingly less likely to have any in­ca­pac­i­ta­tive value. Nor is there any ev­i­dence that life sen­tences have greater de­ter­rent ef­fect. Stud­ies find that it is the cer­tainty of pun­ish­ment, not its sever­ity, that is most cor­re­lated with de­ter­rence. Yet many states have adopted a “life means life” pol­icy with no con­sid­er­a­tion of pa­role. Such sen­tences ef­fec­tively write off the of­fender, re­ject­ing the pos­si­bil­ity of re­demp­tion al­to­gether. Un­der what the­ory of jus­tice should Aaron still be sit­ting in prison for a drug trans­ac­tion he fa­cil­i­tated more than 20 years ago?

A key fac­tor in the prison ex­pan­sion of re­cent decades has been that of­fend­ers sen­tenced to prison are serv­ing much longer sen­tences. Amer­i­can sen­tences to­day are fre­quently two to three times the length for sim­i­lar of­fenses in the United King­dom, the Nether­lands, France and other in­dus­tri­al­ized na­tions. Sen­tenc­ing re­form has be­gun with the low-hang­ing fruit of manda­tory min­i­mums for non­vi­o­lent of­fenses, but if it is to suc­ceed, we must re­duce the length of crim­i­nal sen­tences gen­er­ally. Clarence Aaron is not alone, and un­til we ad­dress Amer­ica’s overly harsh sen­tenc­ing stan­dards, we will be squan­der­ing re­sources that could be bet­ter spent on pub­lic safety, and de­stroy­ing the life prospects of peo­ple who de­serve a sec­ond chance.

ILLUSTRATION BY GREG GROESCH

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