Reducing Crime by Reducing Incarceration; Longer Sentences Don't Mean Fewer Crimes

By Cole, David; Mauer, Marc | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), November 15, 2013 | Go to article overview
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Reducing Crime by Reducing Incarceration; Longer Sentences Don't Mean Fewer Crimes


Cole, David, Mauer, Marc, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


Byline: David Cole and Marc Mauer, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

At the height of the war on drugs in 1992, Clarence Aaron, then a 22-year old football player at Southern University in Baton Rouge, La., introduced a classmate to a high school friend who was a cocaine dealer, leading to a sale of nine kilograms (about 20 lbs.) of cocaine. Aaron himself did not buy, sell or supply any drugs. Still, when Aaron refused to testify against his friends, he received the harshest sentence of anyone involved - three life terms with no parole. He has been serving that sentence for more than 20 years now.

The United States remains the world leader in imprisonment, with an incarceration rate five times higher than that of many of our European allies. It wasn't always this way. From 1925 through 1975, our incarceration rate was about 160 per 100,000 persons. Today it is nearly 700 per 100,000. It rose consistently for more than three decades, largely as a result of changes in policy, not crime rates. These policy changes, under the rubric of the get tough movement, were designed to send more people to prison and to keep them there longer. As the prison population has expanded, however, whatever impact incarceration may have had on crime has confronted the law of diminishing returns. Meanwhile, the corrections system costs us $80 billion a year.

In response to these concerns, recent years have seen significant reforms across the country. States from Texas to California to New York have reduced mandatory minimum sentences, softened three-strikes laws, or established drug-offender diversion programs. The number of people incarcerated in state prisons nationwide has dropped for three years in a row. California, New York and New Jersey have each reduced their prison populations by about 20 percent in the past decade - with no increases in crime.

In an era of heightened partisan politics, reform is a rare bipartisan issue. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. and Republican Sens. Rand Paul and Mike Lee don't often see eye to eye, but they have all advocated measures to reduce mandatory minimums. The American Legislative Exchange Council, which promotes free-market law reforms in the states, has identified reducing prison overcrowding as one of its priorities. Regardless of one's politics, no one can be proud of the fact that the world's wealthiest society locks up more of its citizens per capita than any other nation.

Most of the reforms thus far have focused on nonviolent offenders, especially drug-law violators - and for good reason.

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