Tuesday, October 14, 2008

SENTENCING PANEL MULLS ALTERNATIVES TO PRISON

Washington Post - As the nation's inmate population climbs toward 2.5 million, the U.S. Sentencing Commission is considering alternatives to prison for some offenders, including treatment programs for nonviolent drug users and employment training for minor parole violators.

The commission's consideration of alternatives to incarceration reflects its determination to persuade Congress to ease federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws that contributed to explosive growth in the prison population. The laws were enacted in the mid-1980s, principally to address a crime epidemic related to crack cocaine. But in recent years, federal judges, public defenders and probation officials have argued that mandatory sentences imprison first-time offenders unnecessarily and disproportionately affect minorities.

If the commission moves ahead with recommending alternatives to Congress, it would send a strong signal to state sentencing commissions and legislatures, and could pave the way for a major expansion of drug courts and adult developmental programs for parolees, advocates said.

"We are leading the world in incarcerating adults, and that's something Americans need to understand," said Beryl Howell, one of six members of the commission, which drafts federal sentencing guidelines and advises the House and Senate on prison policy. "People should be aware that every tough-on-crime act comes with a price. The average cost [of incarceration] across the country is $24,000 a year per inmate. . . . It's going up far faster than state budgets can keep up."

About 2,000 drug courts nationwide spend between $1,500 and $11,000 per offender, according to the National Drug Court Institute. Those scattered courts handle only a small fraction of the 1.5 million nonviolent drug offenders who are arrested and charged with a crime, said C. West Huddleston, chief executive of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals.

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