As Washington Gets Tough On Crime, States Moderate

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As the Bush administration minimizes plea bargaining and prosecutes the most serious charges possible, states are reducing or eliminating prison sentences for some crimes. The New York Times says this results in “a somewhat contradictory” crime-fighting agenda. “To just say everybody should go to jail all the time is unfair and very simplistic,” says Michael Lawlor, co-chairman of the Connecticut General Assembly’s Judiciary Committee, which is considering bills to offer drug-addicted and mentally ill criminals non-prison alternatives.

The federal-state differences are matters of ideology, politics and, money. “States just don’t have the money, so there is this incredible willingness from folks on both sides of the aisle to come together and talk about these things,” said Daniel F. Wilhelm of the Vera Institute of Justice, a New York-based nonprofit group.

James Austin of George Washington University said officials in many states had been persuaded that harsh sentencing laws do not work. “There’s a growing recognition that they may have gone too far,” he said. In California, where the prison system consumes 6 percent of the state’s trillion-dollar budget, first- and second-time nonviolent drug offenders now can choose treatment programs instead of prison. Budget officials predict the change will cut the prison population by 36,000, or 22 percent, and save $250 million over three to four years.

The Vera Institute cites several large states that enacted laws to reduce or do away with prison terms for some nonviolent criminals. Texas requires treatment instead of incarceration for drug offenders and that courts sentence certain first-time drug offenders to probation, saving an estimated $30 million over five years. Kansas has a similar law for drug abusers, and Michigan eliminated most mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes and give judges discretion to vary sentences based on factors other than the weight of the drug seized, as previous laws required.

New York leaders failed to agree on how to reduce some of the harshest drug-crime sentencing laws in the nation. Overall, however, with crime rates down, “Politicians are saying, `I’m not going to lose anything,’ ” said Bob Gangi of the Correction Association of New York. “It’s not going to win me votes, like positions on abortion or education would, but it’s not going to lose me votes.”


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