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January 21, 2005 - The Denver Post (CO)

Shining Light In Sentencing Debate

By Reggie Rivers

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Blakely News Archive

After a long, dark night, the faintest glimmer of rationality has begun to illuminate the muddled policy that is the U.S. prison system. While faint, the glow is enough to raise the hopes of thousands of inmates that the light of logic might soon bathe the whole prison debate.

I use the word "debate" optimistically, since there hasn't been any recent meaningful discussion on prisons. In Colorado, citizens and legislators have debated the merits of the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights, higher education funding and Social Security, but prison reform has never ascended to that level of conversation.

The United States has the world's largest prison population, but there has been very little talk about the social implications of having so many people locked up, or the increased militarization of our police forces or the price we pay in lost government services in order to finance prisons.

In fact, during the past couple of years in Colorado, the legislature had cut higher education funding, removed certain legal immigrants from Medicare coverage and contemplated restructuring K-12 financing, but there were no real proposals to slash the prison budget, because no one had the courage to introduce such an unpopular measure.

There have been rumblings in lots of quarters about sentencing problems. Even the U.S. Supreme Court has weighed in on the issue, although a recent pair of rulings on federal sentencing guidelines were muddled and left unclear what latitude federal judges have is handing out sentences.

Congress, in attempts to be tough on crime, had taken too much discretion away from judges and juries.

It's not clear exactly what impact this decision will have on federal inmates who are currently serving sentences, but it will may have a positive impact on future suspects.

Prisons are a necessary part of our society, but they're very expensive. For the past few decades, we've been treating them as the first choice for our criminal justice problems rather than the last choice. In some cases, it might be reasonable to sentence a particular felon to a mandatory 10 years in prison without possibility of parole. In another, very similar case with a different felon, it might make sense to put him on home arrest with an ankle bracelet and a duty to pay restitution to his victim.

Every case is different, and should be judged on its own merits. Among the counterarguments is that if you let judges fashion their own sentences, then you get the racist problems of the South, where white suspects were given light sentences and minority suspects heavy sentences.

The truth is our current system hasn't cured that. Minorities are still more likely to be picked up, charged, convicted and sentenced to long terms than whites. But keeping our eyes out for racist judges doesn't mean we should turn the delicate job of deciding cases over to the blunt force of the legislature.

Among other things, removing some of the mandatory language in the parole system might help lower the rate of recidivism. Typically, parolees aren't sent back to prison because they've committed new crimes, but because they had a technical violation of their parole (e.g., being late for a meeting with his parole officer, drinking alcohol, not finding a job).

Taking away the mandate means that judges can review each individual case and evaluate the parolee's situation in a case-by-case manner. We often hear people griping about so- called "activist judges" who try to legislate from the bench. Well, in this case, the court has struck down "judicial legislators" who have been sentencing from the statehouse.

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