November 10, 2003 - Associated Press

States Starting to Reverse Get-tough Prison Policies, Reformers Say

By Wiley Hall, Associated Press Writer

BALTIMORE -- Faced in recent years with burgeoning budget deficits, half of the legislatures in the country have rolled-back at least some of the get-tough on crime provisions of the past two decades, prison reform advocates were told Monday.

States have repealed mandatory sentencing laws, re-established parole, and diverted nonviolent offenders from prison and into treatment programs, said Judith A. Green, of Families Against Mandatory Minimums.

Speaking at the opening session of a two-day national conference on criminal justice reform, Green said the public appears to have reached a "tipping point" where reform efforts will continue even after the budget crisis is over.

"The dark days are behind us," said Green.

The conference was hosted by the New York-based Open Society Institute and sponsored by several organizations advocating sentencing reform and alternatives to incarceration.

It comes on the heels of a Justice Department report this summer that more than 1.3 million Americans were in state or federal prison in 2001, giving the United States the highest incarceration rate in the world. At the same time, growing federal and state deficits have led policy-makers to search for ways of cutting corrections budgets.

"The get-tough movement is giving way to a push to get-smart about crime," said Laura Jones, a spokeswoman for the Justice Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., a sponsor of the conference.

Advocates said Monday that the shift in policy is driven by changing attitudes as well as by budgetary necessities.

"The growing movement to get smart on crime is not driven solely by dollars," said Laura Sager, executive director of Families Against Mandatory Minimums. "There's been a broad public awareness of the fiscal and social cost of mass incarcerations."

In Michigan, for example, key support in overturning what had been the harshest mandatory sentencing laws in the nation came from a state legislator who described himself as being to the right of Atilla the Hun. In Texas, bitter enemies on issues such as the death penalty and abortion came together in an uneasy partnership to put money into drug treatment and rehabilitation programs, the 200 conference participants were told.

"It was a difficult arrangement but absolutely critical," said Will Harrell, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, speaking of the political alliance between left and right. "We couldn't have done it without it."

Speakers also described how they galvanized support from at the grass roots level -- civil rights and civil liberties advocates, inmates and their families -- and from what they called the "grass tops," of prosecutors, attorneys, judges and bureaucrats.

"There is a pent-up demand for alternatives to incarceration from politicians and ordinary people," said Green.

There also was evidence Monday of pent-up frustration.

A workshop on reform accomplishments ended with members of the audience complaining angrily that blacks, Hispanics and inmates and their families were not represented among the morning panelists and speakers.

"We are never the 'experts,' there is always someone speaking for us, we are never allowed to speak for ourselves," complained Dorsey Nunn, a former inmate who operates a legal services program for inmates in California.

Roseanna Ruiz, who works with inmate families in Houston, Tex., agreed.

"We need to hear the voices of those most affected by these policies," she said.

Copyright © 2003, The Associated Press

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