Freeing Prison’s “Small Fish”: A Wise Tradeoff?


This month, Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear signed a law sending hundreds of drug offenders to treatment instead of prison. It’s expected to save the state millions. Kansas, Montana, and Pennsylvania are now doing the same, reports National Public Radio. Other states are facing more drastic measures. California, South Carolina, and Utah may shorten the time served by thousands of inmates. The director of a prosecutors group disagrees with this strategy.

The many billions of dollars states spend annually on prisons is “a big bill that’s coming due from a lot of overheated rhetoric from the ’80s and ’90s,” said Adam Gelb, who studies prison costs for the Pew Center on the States. Gelb says prisons now house too many nonviolent property and drug offenders that never would have been sent to long prison terms in the past. “As we cast the correctional net wider and wider,” he said, “we caught smaller and smaller fish.” Tom Sneddon of the National District Attorneys Association says states should think carefully before they abandon laws that he says reduced crime. He says there’s no such thing as a small fish. “There aren’t people sitting in prison that don’t belong there,” he said. Sneddon says that in the 30 years he spent as a prosecutor, drug offenders were often charged with multiple crimes. He says they’re usually offered a plea deal for just one charge, making it seem as though they have been sent to prison on a single small charge. “To balance a budget on law enforcement and public safety’s expense is not a wise policy decision to be made,” he said.

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