As a result of the nation's budget crunch, Karen Shook could be
handed a "get out of jail free" card very soon.
The suburban mother of three has served nine years of a 20- to 40-
year sentence for conspiracy to sell cocaine under Michigan's
mandatory minimum-sentencing laws. Last month, Gov. John Engler (R)
signed a bill that repeals them and hands much discretion back to
judges. The new law, which goes into effect in March, is
retroactive. As a result, Ms. Shook will come up for parole 10 years
earlier than expected.
"She was an addict that police said was 'easy mark' who
introduced an undercover officer to a supplier," says Laurie Quick,
her sister. "She did wrong, no question, but she should have gotten
As states cope with the worst fiscal crisis since World War II,
the "get tough on crime" policies that tripled the nation's prison
population - and quintupled spending on corrections - over the past
quarter century are coming under increasing scrutiny. During 2000
alone, states spent more than $40 billion on prisons, or $1 out of
every $14 general-fund dollars, according to a report by the Justice
Policy Institute in Washington.
From Michigan to Ohio to North Carolina, governors and lawmakers
are looking for ways to reduce criminal-justice budgets by cutting
down on the number of inmates. Drug laws, parole policies, and truth-
in-sentencing requirements are all on the table. And in many states,
like Michigan, it's conservative lawmakers who've taken on the
mantle of reform.
Focus on nonviolent offenders
The process is speeding up a reform movement started by a small
number of grass-roots groups a decade ago, which has shifted public
opinion in favor of alternatives to prison for nonviolent offenders.
It now promises to revamp the way the nation deals with criminals by
offering more nonviolent offenders a range of alternatives, from
drug treatment to community service.
"We created a monster, thinking we could lock up all of those
people for long periods of time," says Reginald Wilkinson, director
of Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction and past
president of the American Correction Association. "We've gotten a a
wake-up call for us to look at how to better manage the billions of
dollars that are being dispersed to prison agencies."
Of state funds spent on prisons in 2000, more than half - $24
billion - went to imprison nonviolent offenders. Many of them, like
Ms. Shook, were involved with illegal drugs and got caught up with
the tough mandatory minimum-sentencing laws that were enacted first
in New York in 1973. They were designed to get drug kingpins off the
street, but studies show they more often ended up giving low-level
and first-time offenders long prison sentences.
From 1980 to 1997, the number of imprisoned drug offenders
increased more than 10 times in the US, while the number of violent
Mike Kowall, a conservative Michigan lawmaker, was a strong
advocate of the mandatory minimum laws when they were first