PRISON; A Step Forward

Article excerpt

If ever a time this was needed, now is it.

The United States locks up more people than any other developed country in the world.

The 2.3 million people in prison currently exceeds the population of 15 states, according to The Economist.

Holding on to that record isn't cheap, either.

It costs tens of thousands of dollars a year to care for inmates - ranging from $18,000 a year in Mississippi to $50,000 in California. Most are locked up for nonviolent drug crimes or other offenses that could be dealt with through probation or rehabilitation.

And this all comes at a time when massive budget shortfalls are forcing state governments to lay off teachers and other workers, as well as limit or end other public services.

Clearly, this isn't working. But recently, Congress took a step toward a solution.

BIPARTISAN SOLUTION

The House of Representatives recently passed bipartisan legislation to establish the National Criminal Justice Commission. It is the companion to legislation that Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va, introduced last year - and which passed the Senate Judiciary Committee in January with bipartisan support.

If enacted, the commission would conduct an 18-month evaluation of the nation's justice system and recommend reforms in areas ranging from sentencing policy, incarceration rates, law enforcement, crime prevention and substance abuse.

The hope is that the commission will find ways to reduce the prison population, while protecting the public and rooting out practices that are flawed.

To some people, the idea of yet another commission to study a problem may seem like a waste of time.

But the problem of massive incarceration is one that can't be solved in a knee-jerk, uncritical way - because even as the commission will strive to look for ways to pare down the inmate population, it must first balance its recommendations against keeping communities safe. …