Political conservatives who, since at least the Nixon administration, have worn with pride the badge of “tough on crime” are beginning to realize that tough doesn’t necessarily mean the same as being “smart on crime.”
Just as the private sector has embraced the mantra of “working smarter, not harder,” it’s time for federal and state officials to acknowledge the need for a smarter and more cost-effective criminal justice system.
Reducing life-without-parole sentences is one of several planks in the Coalition for Public Safety’s nonpartisan campaign for fair sentencing and fair chances, the overall goal of which is aimed at reducing the nation’s burgeoning jail and prison populations and breaking down the barriers to successful re-entry into society.
The coalition supporting the fair sentencing and fair chances campaign believes that we can dramatically reduce the enormous amount of money — currently $80 billion — that American taxpayers spend annually on incarceration in the state and federal jail and prison systems — and do so without jeopardizing public safety. That coalition includes the conservative groups Americans for Tax Reform, Faith & Freedom Coalition and FreedomWorks.
In addition to calling for a reduction in the number of life-without-parole sentences, CPS’ fair sentencing and fair chances campaign is also calling for reducing the length of federal mandatory-minimum sentences for nonviolent offenses, so that the punishment fits the crime. That will help safely alleviate prison overcrowding while also curbing burgeoning costs.
A 2014 National Academy of Sciences study concluded that “[t]he incremental deterrent effect of increase in lengthy prison sentences is modest at best.” The Academy — an independent, nonpartisan body — added that “lengthy prison sentences, unless they specifically target very high-rate or extremely dangerous offenders, are an inefficient approach” to preventing crime.
At both the federal and state levels, we also advocate greater use of alternatives to incarceration, where appropriate. These include restitution, community supervision and residential re-entry centers, both pre-trial and post-sentencing, as well as expanded access to mental health care, substance-abuse treatment, education and job training.
Programs that allow inmates to reduce their sentences through credit for good behavior and participation in recidivism-reduction training should be expanded. So should the sealing of criminal records, where appropriate, to encourage rehabilitation and to make it easier for ex-offenders to find gainful employment and reintegrate into society.
Members of Congress, as well as state lawmakers, should recognize that overcriminalization is contributing mightily to the problem of prison overcrowding when they pass new criminal laws with little thought as to their long-term costs or consequences.
Federal and state lawmakers add scores of criminal laws to the books every year. The federal and state agencies promulgating regulations by the thousands, carrying criminal penalties, to enforce those laws greatly compound the problem.
Ignorance of the law may be no excuse, but it’s certainly understandable, and as a consequence, all too many innocent people are finding themselves in the dock. That’s also a direct result of criminal laws being enacted without an adequate criminal-intent — or mens rea (Latin for “guilty mind”) — requirement for conviction.
Including such a provision would compel prosecutors to focus on those who intentionally commit crimes, rather than on the law-abiding who unwittingly break the law.
Clearly, something needs to be done when, since 1980, the federal prison population has increased nearly tenfold and the state prison population has quadrupled. More than 1 percent of all U.S. adults are now behind bars, by far the highest rate of any nation in the world.
By addressing much-needed reforms to the current one-size-fits-all approach to prison sentencing, and by also reducing barriers to education, housing, and employment that so many ex-offenders face, we can protect our communities and increase public safety. We must seize this unique opportunity for progress to make the justice system smarter, fairer, and more effective.