Newspaper article Sarasota Herald Tribune

Sentencing Reform: An Idea Whose Time Has Come

Newspaper article Sarasota Herald Tribune

Sentencing Reform: An Idea Whose Time Has Come

Article excerpt


Pop quiz: Two days after President Barack Obama commuted the sentences of 46 offenders in federal prisons, Florida TaxWatch:

a) Excoriated the president for being soft on crime and dumping the 11 inmates from Florida back on the streets of our state.

b) Lauded the president's actions, saying the sentences of these "low-level offenders" were "unnecessarily harsh."

c) Urged Florida lawmakers to counteract Obama's decisions by making the state's sentencing laws harsher.

d) Called upon the state Legislature to "revisit all nonviolent drug sentencing and reduce the mandatory minimums for these offenses."

Answers: b and d.

TaxWatch is a nonpartisan research organization but its policies are generally conservative. TaxWatch is part of the Florida Smart Justice Alliance, an outgrowth of the ultra-pro-business Associated Industries. The alliance also calls for sentencing reform and has proposed that Florida wisely invest more resources in helping inmates who fulfill their terms re-enter society successfully.

The alliance recognizes that changing Florida's approach to criminal justice requires broad-based support. "Therefore, mission Number One for the Florida Smart Justice Alliance will be to forge consensus among the broad range of affected parties," the organization's website states.

I don't suggest that, in the realm of justice reform, we are in the harmonious Age of Aquarius, with peace guiding politics and love steering policies.

But broad-based consensus is emerging, a growing understanding that, for social and economic reasons, it is harmful and costly to rely excessively on incarceration -- even for nonviolent offenses -- and skimp on programs that help released inmates avoid recidivism.

Last week, in a speech to the NAACP, Obama outlined his intent to reform the federal justice system and prisons; I'm confident he hopes such efforts will trickle down to the states.

As the president made clear, "murderers, predators, rapists, gang leaders, drug kingpins" and other threats to society should be behind bars. Furthermore, "the studies show that up to a certain point, tougher prosecutors and stiffer sentences for these violent offenders contributed to the decline in violent crime over the last few decades. Although the science also indicates that you get a point of diminishing returns." That is especially the case when long sentences are imposed upon nonviolent offenders, including those imprisoned for illegal-drug offenses under mandatory-minimum laws.

Referring to Obama's recent commutation of sentences, TaxWatch chief executive Dominic Calabro stated, "Over-incarceration of nonviolent drug offenders, such as these inmates, provides little to no public benefit to community safety, but results in astronomical costs. …

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