Criminal Justice Reform Saves Money and Freedom
In 2005, James V. Taylor was arrested for having a crack pipe in his car and an “unweighable” amount of crack, roughly half a gram. He was sentenced to fifteen years in prison. In 1995, John Alexander Wood shot and killed an unarmed prostitute in the back. He was sentenced to ten years of probation for a crime that resulted in the death of an individual. During his probation, Wood tested positive for crack cocaine five times and was even arrested for possession of cocaine. The judge allowed Wood to remain free, and he ended his parole without any sort of reprimand.
Unfortunately, there are many more examples of harsh sentences, as well as lighter sentences for more serious crimes. Excessive disparities in sentencings can occur without limits on possible punishments. This problem can be traced back to the 1960s, when many states and the federal government adopted a “tough on crime” stance. As a result, state prison populations increased dramatically. Alabama’s prison population, for instance, rose substantially, from 6,000 in 1978 to roughly 28,000 today. Not only does this add a strain on the state budget – more taxpayer dollars spent on incarcerations rather than education – but the act has also been shown to have no effect on recidivism rates.
It is clear that current criminal justice policies are in need of serious reform. Far too many people have spent an unjustifiable amount of time in prison due to draconian prison sentences. This is especially true with regard to drug usage. ALEC has long been a strong advocate of criminal justice reform. They believe in innovative state policies that reduce prison populations while maximizing the utility of taxpayer dollars. But most importantly, ALEC members believe there are offenders who do not pose a risk to public safety and that these types of offenders should be offered alternatives to incarceration if they desire. ALEC focuses on several facets of criminal justice reform, including mandatory minimum sentencing. Simply put, mandatory minimum sentencing laws send more nonviolent people to prison for a longer time. Many states, such as Texas, have realized that nonviolent and even first-time drug possessors ought to be eligible for a downward departure from mandatory minimum prison sentences. As a result of increased rates of incarceration of nonviolent offenders, state spending on prisons has risen substantially to accommodate an exploding prison population.
States could instead implement far more efficient measures that have been proven to be more effective at lowering crime, such as community supervision of offenders, drug treatment programs, special drug courts, and of course abolishing drug-related mandatory minimums. Michigan and Texas have implemented these policies. Not only have they saved billions of taxpayer dollars, but the incarceration and crime rate have fallen faster than the national average.
These alternatives to mandatory minimum sentencing laws fall under the umbrella category of “safety-valve” laws. In fact, ALEC members believe this measure to be so successful that they have developed the Justice Safety Valve Act as model policy for state lawmakers. Sentencing for nonviolent offenders should be examined on a case-by-case basis. Blindly prescribing all offenders who commit the same crime the same punishment could likely result in unfair sentencings. Common sense distinctions must be made for offenders who do not pose a threat to the public – e.g., a first-time drug user versus a kingpin. The former could be sent to a drug treatment facility, instead of being treated in the same manner as the latter. Essentially, safety valve laws give the judge an important level of discretion that results in a fairer criminal justice system. Scarce resources could also be allocated more efficiently – instead of spending millions on bigger prisons, states could spend that money on vocational and reentry programs in an effort to lower recidivism.
Increasing awareness of the injustices that many offenders face is the least society can do. But these days, political polarization has rendered any sort of substantial policy reform on many issues to be beyond reach. However, criminal justice reform is different – there is bipartisan hope. And these efforts have not gone in vain – James V. Taylor’s excessive punishment was paroled, after the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 was passed.