Sentencing should be done sensibly

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, November 11, 2003

Staff report

Being tough on crime is a popular political position and it was particularly so in the 1990s when the economy was booming. More than a few pandering politicos rode to election victory on the mantra of &uot;Lock’em up and throw away the key.&uot;

The abolition of parole and mandatory minimum sentences provided states with an ever-growing prison population, along with an ever-growing budget for feeding and housing these prisoners, regardless of the actual threat to society they posed.

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Many of these were non-violent drug offenders, more a threat to themselves than to the average law-abiding citizen.

At the time, many argued that this was unsound public policy. That while it may feed some visceral need the public has to punish lawbreakers, the laws did little to either make us safer or deter dangerous crime.

Now that states are facing mounting budget deficits, many of these politicians are beginning to question how tough they really need to be on crime.

According to the New York Times, in the past year about 25 states have passed laws eliminating some of the lengthy mandatory minimum sentences so popular in the 1980s and 1990s, restoring early release for parole and offering treatment instead of incarceration for some drug offenders. In the process, politicians across the political spectrum say they are discovering a new motto. Instead of being tough on crime, it is more effective to be smart on crime.

The Kansas legislature, faced with the need to build $15 million worth of prisons, passed a law this year mandating treatment instead of incarceration for first-time drug offenders who did not commit a crime involving violence. The law is expected to divert 1,400 offenders a year, a significant proportion of Kansas’ 9,000 inmates.

&uot;I think we are realizing that there is a smarter way to deal with criminals, rather than just being tough on them and putting them away for the rest of their lives,&uot; John Vratil, a Republican who is chairman of the State Senate Judiciary Committee, told the Times. &uot;Even those people who favor being tough on crime don’t want to find the money to build more prisons and go back on their pledge of no new taxes. So they are choosing between the lesser of two evils.&uot;

What’s heartening is that even once the economy is back on a sound footing, Vratil believes the new approach to crime and punishment will continue.

&uot;What started out as an effort to save money has evolved into an appreciation for good public policy, and this has enabled legislators who were initially reluctant about it to support it,&uot; he said.

We don’t need to be wasting precious dollars keeping people who pose no threat jailed. Any effort to move toward more sensible sentencing should be applauded and encouraged in Virginia.