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Can We Be Tough on Crime Without Being Tough on Taxpayers?

August 14, 2012 04:38:00 am
Comments (5)

By Julie Stewart

On August 1, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing to look at rising federal prison spending and its impact on the overall criminal justice budget. The hearing followed the release of a letter by Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer to the U.S. Sentencing Commission arguing  that federal corrections spending is forcing reductions in federal assistance to states for police, prosecutors, and prevention programs.

Prompting both events, of course, is the government’s miserable financial condition, marked by record federal deficits and ballooning national debt that have forced the President and Congress to look throughout the federal budget for places to cut spending.

“In an era of governmental austerity, maximizing public safety can only be achieved by finding a proper balance of outlays that allows, on the one hand, for sufficient numbers of police, investigative agents, prosecutors and judicial personnel to investigate, apprehend, prosecute and adjudicate those who commit federal crimes,” Breuer said in the letter.

“And on the other hand, a sentencing policy that achieves public safety correctional goals and justice for victims, the community, and the offender.”

Calling current increases in the federal corrections budget “unsustainable,” Breuer wrotes that current overcrowding in federal prisons “puts correctional officers and inmates alike at greater risk of harm and makes recidivism reduction far more difficult.”

That’s a pretty damning indictment, given that reducing the risk of re-offending should be a top priority of the criminal justice system.

Justice Department leaders deserve credit for identifying how the current budget climate could negatively affect public safety unless criminal justice resources are allocated wisely. And Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy is right to bring congressional attention to this critical issue.

Indeed, we hope the  hearing prompts all stakeholders in the criminal justice system to explore ways for us to be tough on crime without being tough on taxpayers.

FAMM has long advocated applying the same cost-benefit analysis applied to so many other policies and regulations to the criminal justice system.

When we talk of cost-benefit analysis, we do not mean that society should tolerate more crime to save money. The cost of many crimes—measured in lost property and money, in personal injury, and, tragically, in lost lives—far exceeds the cost of incarceration.

Compared to losing a loved one or losing one’s life savings, the approximately $28,000 per year it costs to keep a dangerous person in federal prison seems like a bargain. But when that money is spent on excessive and one-size-fits-all prison terms for those who are not a threat or would thrive with smarter alternative punishments, we waste scarce resources and put society at risk.

Policymakers who are worried – and rightly so – about overcrowding federal prisons and swelling of prison budgets should look at what is driving these unsustainable increases. 

The Sentencing Commission last year found that a significant share of the blame rested with mandatory minimum sentences, a point also raised by Chairman Leahy at Wednesday’s hearing.

In a special report to Congress, the Commission wrote:

“Statutes carrying mandatory minimum penalties have increased in number, apply to more offense conduct, require longer terms, and are used more often than they were 20 years ago. These changes have occurred amid other systemic changes to the federal criminal justice system . . . that also have had an impact on the size of the federal prison population. 

“Those include expanded federalization of criminal law, increased size and changes in the composition of the federal criminal docket, high rates of imposition of sentences of imprisonment, and increasing average sentence lengths. [T]he changes to mandatory minimum penalties and these co-occurring systemic changes have combined to increase the federal prison population significantly.”

There are many different ways policymakers might seek to reduce corrections spending while maintaining if not improving public safety.  

They can make better use of the compassionate release program so that elderly, disabled, and terminally ill offenders, who pose no threat to society, are not forced to serve their full sentences.

They can allow some prisoners to earn some time off their sentences if they successfully complete proven recidivism-reducing programs.

Finally, they can reserve expensive prison space for violent and repeat offenders and make use of new technologies and methods that make it possible for low-level, nonviolent offenders to be held in the community.

Policymakers’ first step, however, should be to do no harm. Yet, pending before Congress at this very moment are proposals to impose new mandatory minimum sentences in the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) reauthorization, the Senate’s Cybersecurity bill, and new legislation dealing with identity theft on tax returns.

These proposals cover vastly different offenses, but share two lamentable traits: (1) none of the new mandatory minimums was the subject of a congressional hearing or debate about its utility or lack thereof, (2) all of these new proposals will exacerbate the federal prison problem without any assurance of improving public safety.

In fact, in the case of the new mandatory minimum in the VAWA reauthorization, the only stakeholder to weigh in on either side—pro or con—was a group dedicated to protecting women’s security, which  warned Congress that its new penalty provision would hurt, not help, abused women.

Now that DOJ and Congress have identified the threat to public safety posed by the runaway federal corrections budget, it is time for them to work together, and with other stakeholders in the criminal justice system, to adopt smart, cost-effective sentencing and prison policies.

As Mr. Breuer so aptly noted in his letter to the Sentencing Commission, “[P]risons are essential for public safety. But maximizing public safety can be achieved without maximizing prison spending. 

Julie Stewart is president and founder of FAMM (Families Against Mandatory Minimums, and a frequent contributor to The Crime Report.  FAMM works for fair and proportionate sentencing laws that allow judicial discretion while maintaining public safety. She welcomes comments from readers.  

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Posted by Gary
Sunday, August 26, 2012 09:00

To answer the headline of this story — Not if we continue the “lock ’em up mentality” / mass incarceration mode of the last 40 years.

Posted by Jack Donson
Wednesday, August 15, 2012 12:30

Great article. Let Julie know I would be happy to give her constructive feedback on Federal prison issues. I am associatedwith FedCURE and know Charlie Sullivan of CURE who can attest to my feedback. I retired from the BOP in 2011 after an exemplary 23 years career and feel I have constructive feedback on reform and the prison system in general!

Jack Donson
212 461 2252

Posted by Judy Geer
Tuesday, August 14, 2012 06:28

Mandatory minimums are unfair and must be abolished… Help the thousands who have been trapped by an unfair law… Change the sentencing laws and give us prison reforms as well…

Posted by David Rogers
Tuesday, August 14, 2012 03:58

Julie Stewart’s messaging in this article is deeply dissapointing. She is supposed to be an advocate for smart criminal justice reform, but she is reinforcing a tough on crime messaging framework. Honestly, did she really just do that? At this point, there has been more than enough strong public opinion research and on the ground campaign victories that suggest we don’t need to move the needle closer to the messaging framework of regressive tough on crime advocates in order to win reforms. Why should we acknowledge that being “tough on crime” is a useful strategy? Mainstreaming the movement for reform can often be an effective strategy, but change agents need to be conscious and dilgent in monitoring their language and tatics to make sure they haven’t gone so far as to actually be damaging future efforts rather than helping them. It seems like FAMM may be in danger of taking a wrong turn. I thought they were once brillant leaders in the use of terms like “smart on crime” which gives legislators a useful alternative to adopting problematic tough on crime posturing. Certain terms should not be proactively used if what we want is build a smarter approach to addressing crime and building safe and healthy communities than strategies so heavily focused on incaceration and punishent. How do we move to a new paradigm for public safety beyond mandatory minimums by suggesting that “tough on crime” is actually a desirable approach?.

Posted by Irvin Waller
Tuesday, August 14, 2012 11:13

Tough on crime without being tough on taxpayers is called prevention. TCR persistently overlooks this strong and evidence based solution!!! See book Less Law, More Order: The Truth about Reducing Crime on an evidence based critique of the failure for victims and taxpayers of only spending on being tough on justice for offenders. The book goes on to present the evidence on what reduces crime at a fraction of the cost of the ¨all reaction¨ strategy. The clincher is that the book shows how federal intervention in the USA got the States into the mess that they are in but could also get them out of it.

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