Some state legislatures facing budget crises are beginning to rethink costly approaches to criminal sentencing, the New York Times says. In the past year, about half the states have eliminated some of the lengthy mandatory minimum sentences popular in the 1980’s and 1990’s, restoring early release for parole and offering treatment instead of incarceration for some drug offenders. The Times says that legislators “across the political spectrum say they are discovering a new motto. Instead of being tough on crime, it is more effective to be smart on crime.”
In Washington State, the first state to pass a stringent “three strikes” law a decade ago, legislators passed several laws this year reversing some of their more punitive statutes. A major backer of the changes was Norm Maleng, a conservative Republican who has been the chief county prosecutor in Seattle since 1979 and was a sponsor of a 1980’s law that doubled sentences for drug convictions.
In Kansas, faced with the prospect of building $15 million worth of prisons, legislators this year mandating treatment instead of incarceration for first-time drug offenders committing nonviolent offenses. Michigan dropped its lengthy mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders; Iowa, Missouri and Wisconsin have taken steps to ease their “truth in sentencing” laws, which require inmates to serve most of their sentences before being eligible for release.
Thee changes reflect an important national trend, said Daniel Wilhelm of the Vera Institute of Justice in New York City. “People thought parole was dead …,” Wilhelm said, because in the 1980’s and 1990’s many states outlawed parole as part of the get-tough-on-crime movement. “But parole is alive and well,” he said, because of the pressures of budget deficits and the continued growth in the nation’s prison population. There are now 2.1 million Americans in jail or prison, quadruple the number in 1980.