Some States Ponder Decriminalization



Lawyers who represent poor people complain that their offices are overworked and underfunded. Now, says National Public Radio, some states are starting to believe that the solution is not to throw more money at the system but putting fewer people in jail. New Hampshire’s legislature may take away the threat of jail time for some offenses; the government only has to pay for a defense lawyer when poor defendants face incarceration. Decriminalization–taking away the threat of jail–saves money.

William Wren, New Hampshire corrrections commissioner, says tough budget prospects are forcing him to look at closing a whole prison and laying off 97 positions. For that reason, he wants fewer people sent to prison, and he is asking lawmakers to examine which crimes really deserve time behind bars. He says “threshold dollar amount for going from a misdemeanor [theft] to a felony crime is $500. That was set 31 years ago. What $500 was 31 years ago is a lot different from what it would equate to today,” he says. “In Washington and in many other states, suspended-driver-license crimes constitute as much as one third of the total misdemeanor caseload,” says Bob Boruchowitz, a visiting law professor at Seattle University. More than 100,000 people are prosecuted every year for driving with a suspended license in Washington, and a justice coalition in Seattle has recommended changing the law. Last fall, voters in his state passed a law decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana. Now Massachusetts is considering further decriminalization measures.

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