Truth-in-Sentencing Overdue

Article excerpt

The nation was rightly outraged by the recent kidnapping and murder of 13-year-old Polly Klaas. Yet most people were not surprised to learn that the man charged with her killing, Richard Allen Davis, has a long criminal record and was out of prison on parole at the time of the slaying. The fact that this horrible crime could have been averted had justice been served earlier is symptomatic of the crisis in our criminal justice system.

The American people are, quite simply, under assault by violent career criminals who have no respect for the criminal justice system. They know that it is broken and that, in terms of punishing offenders, the government usually fails to deliver on its promises. According to a 1992 Justice Department report, a typical murderer is sentenced to 15 years but serves only five. Rapists are sentenced to an average of eight years but serve only three. It is time to take the costly but vitally needed steps to reestablish the credibility of our justice system.

First, we must ensure truth in sentencing -- that is, guarantee that criminals serve their full sentences. The federal government already follows truth in sentencing. Convicted criminals serve at least 85 percent of their sentences. Parole has been eliminated. Judges are required to impose sentences based on binding guidelines or mandatory minimum sentences.

However, since just 5 percent of our nation's crimes are prosecuted by the federal government, only a small part of the problem has been addressed. Consequently, during the debate regarding the crime bill passed by the Senate in November, Republicans added a provision that encourages state governments to adopt truth-insentencing systems in exchange for access to space in federal regional prisons for violent inmates.

This is a reform whose time has come. Many states, including California, Florida and Utah, are considering sentencing reform. Arizona and Michigan already have implemented it. Others certainly will follow suit in light of the incentives in the crime bill.

Unfortunately, while Congress and states move toward greater truth in sentencing, the Clinton administration appears to be moving away. Falling back toward the softheaded approaches of the 1960s and 1970s, the administration has effectively thwarted truth in sentencing at the federal level by ordering prosecutors to engage in more plea bargaining and by encouraging lower sentences.

This silent assault on truth in sentencing was embodied in a recent Justice Department directive to federal prosecutors. …