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November 14, 2004 - The Peoria Journal Star (IL)

Repeal Mandatory Sentences So Punishment Fits Crime

By Stephen Saloom, state policy director of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

In the American criminal justice system, "Our resources are misspent, our punishments too severe, (and) our sentences too long."

These aren't the words of some wild-eyed liberal. These were the remarks of conservative U. S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, urging the American Bar Association to lead the effort to reform that system.

Responding to his call, the ABA formed a "Justice Kennedy Commission," assigning some of the nation's top attorneys to investigate and report on the health of the American correctional system.

After a year of intensive research and hearings throughout the country, the commission, headed by former prosecutor Steven Salzburg, determined that there were serious structural defects in our criminal justice system and provided specific recommendations for addressing them. These conclusions include:

- - Repealing mandatory minimum sentences.

- - Sentencing alternatives to incarceration as punishment for those who pose a low risk to society and appear likely to benefit from rehabilitation.

- - Providing appropriate programming, including substance abuse treatment, educational and job training opportunities, and mental health counseling and services, from the beginning of each prisoner's incarceration.

- - Limiting punishment to what the conduct warrants and prohibiting punishment that unreasonably infringes on fundamental rights or frustrates successful reentry.

It's absolutely clear that the excessive growth of our prison system threatens its very effectiveness. The only question now is whether legislators will accept their responsibility to fix the problem which they themselves created.

For decades, legislators opted for the political points to be gained by being "tough on crime" instead of effectively protecting the public by being smart on crime. Political rhetoric fueled public anger. Politicians played to that anger with "tough" policies and more rhetoric.

This further stoked emotions, and the cycle continued to build strength until we essentially replaced the criminal justice system's "correctional" approach with "punishment." It may have felt good at the time, but that transformation now threatens the very public safety it was supposed to protect.

In just 30 years, our prison population has grown from 200,000 to 2,000,000. Mandatory minimum drug laws have fueled the weed-like growth - and racial disproportion - of our prison population, while straining judicial resources. Treatment programs are severely underfunded, and prison programs proven to reduce recidivism have been decimated.

More than 600,000 people will be released from prison into our communities this year.

They bring with them the horror of prison experience diseases such as HIV, hepatitis C and antibiotic-resistant tuberculosis and a criminal record that, because of newly created laws, will make finding the jobs, housing, and other forms of assistance necessary for successful re-entry especially hard. And where we've eliminated parole, we've eliminated the supervision that helped many successfully navigate the transition from prison to "the outside."

Of course, we can send these people back to prison if they re-offend, but what does that get us? It only perpetuates the cycle. These people cost an average of $25,000 per year to incarcerate, during which time they cannot support their families or contribute to their communities' tax bases.

Creating a massive class of criminals and replacing treatment with punishment does not make for safer communities. With homeland security, police staffing, victim services, drug treatment and successful prisoner re-entry - the things necessary to truly protect the public - in desperate need of funding and attention, we can no longer afford to ignore the threat created by our counterproductive practices.

The need for action is clear. Suggested by a Supreme Court justice, established by the American Bar Association and required in light of evolving public safety concerns, it's now up to legislators to protect the public from the monster they've created. It will take legislative leadership and courage, but it can be done. Indeed, it must.

Legislators, what say ye?

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