Corrections Should Take the Lead in Changing Sentencing Practices

Article excerpt

Editor's note: The following is the keynote address ACA President Perry M. Johnson delivered at the conference Jan. 11. Members are encouraged to submit letters to the editor to Corrections Today in response.

ACA's members come from many backgrounds. But we have one thing in common: We all deal in one way or another with people serving criminal sentences or juvenile commitments. And most of us have spent too much of our time lately dealing with one issue--the avalanche of people serving these sentences.

It is no longer news that in the past 20 years the prison population has quadrupled. It is so much "not news," that I am afraid we are beginning to take it for granted. We seem to accept it as inevitable. Hundreds more prisons are planned or being built, and we are resigned to it, like an act of God, that must be endured and lived with.

Well, we can live with it, but should we? The case I want to make is that we should not, and must not.

Now it is not that we, as an association, have been blind to what is going on. We have examined prison crowding from every direction, and sought out responses to it everywhere--from alternatives to prison to building prisons faster than has ever been done before. But what I am afraid we have not done is questioned or challenged, in any fundamental way, the policies that caused that crowding.

Put another way, we have long accepted the responsibility for dealing with offenders sentenced under criminal law. But we have focused on the individuals and said little about the law or the sentences.

Some explain this by saying these are matters for courts and legislators to decide. Ultimately that is true. But we, better than anyone else, directly see and understand the real effects of criminal sanctions. We know what these sanctions cost in human and economic terms, and we see firsthand when they fail and when they succeed. If we do not apply our collective wisdom to the shaping of public policy, no one will do it for us.

For these reasons, at a strategic planning retreat last September, your Executive Committee, ACA staff and key committee chairpersons concluded that corrections is a voice long overdue in the sentencing debate. They concluded that the public good demands we take part. It is our duty.

The planning committee also concluded that criticism alone would serve little purpose; we must be prepared to suggest positive and constructive solutions. Such solutions must be more than the conclusions of an individual or committee or task force--they must represent the will of the membership.

For that reason, sentencing issues for juveniles and adults will be a major focus of the Association for the next two years. Sentencing will be the theme of the Summer Congress. My intent here is only to suggest a way of proceeding on this matter--to lay a foundation for the work ahead. In the final analysis, it is you who must decide what will be said by corrections about this issue, which so vitally affects everything we do.

Now in an association as diverse as ours, getting consensus on what needs fixing and what the solutions should be will not be an easy task. It may seem, at first, impossible.

But I don't think it is. I believe almost everyone here would agree on at least four criteria for criminal sanctions, and most would also agree that current systems of sentencing do not meet these aims.

Four Essential Criteria

First, a sound sentencing policy must be fair and just--it must be impartial and carry sanctions proportionate to the harm done. Second, it must be based on a rational strategy to reduce crime. Third, it must not diminish respect for the law. And last, it should do what it can to make crime victims whole again.

Let's consider each of these criteria briefly to see if we might also agree that most criminal codes and sentencing practices fall far short of these aims:

First, the issue of making sure sentences are fair and just. …