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States easing sentencing laws

More and more states are taking a step back from the lock-’em-up approach to law enforcement.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Pennsylvania’s Democratic governor has done it. But so has the head of New York’s Republicans. Both have joined the growing ranks of leaders taking a step back from the lock-’em-up approach to law enforcement.

Gov. Ed Rendell last month signed a bill approved by the Republican-controlled Legislature that will get hundreds of nonviolent drug and alcohol offenders out of prison more quickly and into treatment programs.

The policy shift is expected to reduce pressure on a prison system whose population has climbed to nearly 41,000 convicts, up from about 28,000 a decade ago. It’s also expected to shave $20 million a year from an expected $1.34 billion budget that’s nearly tripled during the same period.

This week, with the help of Gov. George Pataki, New York lawmakers also voted to loosen sentencing policies that have left many low-level drug offenders and addicts languishing in prison.

Easing up across nation
In the past three years, more than half the states have eased sentencing laws, said Daniel  Wilhelm, director of the State Sentencing and Corrections Project at the Vera Institute of Justice in New York.

Driving those changes have been budget pressures, concerns about the fairness of sentencing, and falling public concern about crime as the crime rate has dropped, he said. The nation currently spends an estimated $40 billion annually on corrections.

Michigan abolished its mandatory sentencing scheme in December 2002. Kansas passed the nation’s most comprehensive mandatory drug-treatment diversion act last year. Texas put more money into drug treatment.

“What’s interesting to note is in a lot of these states, it’s not the liberal Democrats who are championing reforms,” Wilhelm said. “It’s Republicans who are at the forefront.”

Despite the changes, much of the harshest anti-crime legislation remains on the books. Drug law reformers have been unable to get states such as Pennsylvania and New York to allow some offenders to avoid prison altogether in favor of treatment. And voters in California last month narrowly rejected a referendum to weaken that state’s three-strikes law.

Pennsylvania’s decision to pursue more treatment for inmates comes nearly a decade after tough anti-crime policies were pushed through a receptive Legislature by then-Gov. Tom Ridge, now the nation’s outgoing secretary of homeland security.

GOP lawmaker cites budget
With prison spending growing faster than any other part of the state budget, “I think we have to be smart in regard to how we incarcerate people,” said state Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Under the sentencing changes, inmates with nonviolent convictions involving drugs or alcohol will be diverted, after a minimum seven months in prison, into a so-called “intermediate punishment” program.

They will spend at least two months at a community-based therapeutic facility before finishing their minimum 24-month sentences in a halfway house or group home while receiving treatment.

Corrections Secretary Jeffrey Beard said the state expects the treatment, combined with aftercare, to cut in half recidivism rates that now stand at 50 percent to 60 percent.

“They’re still going to do hard time in prison, but we’re going to give them a program that meets their needs, so that when they go out, they’re going to be less likely to prey on society,” Beard said.