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January 23, 2007

State of the Union and modern sentencing politics

I will be surprised if President George Bush's 2007 State of the Union Address tonight includes any criminal justice talk.  Last year's speech didn't.  Still, it bears recalling that some of President Bush's previous State of the Union Addresses included a few criminal justice surprises:

  • Calling America "the land of second chance," President Bush in his 2004 State of the Union address spotlighted prisoner re-entry issues and proposed "a four-year, $300 million prisoner re-entry initiative to expand job training and placement services, to provide transitional housing, and to help newly released prisoners get mentoring, including from faith-based groups." 
  • Asserting that in America "we must make doubly sure no person is held to account for a crime he or she did not commit," President Bush in his 2005 State of the Union Address asserted that he was bringing "to Congress a proposal to fund special training for defense counsel in capital cases, because people on trial for their lives must have competent lawyers by their side." 

I spotlight these prior comments in part because, after the filing of a brief against the defendant in Claiborne on behalf of two purported liberal Democrats, I continue to think that current Republican leaders are perhaps the federal officials most likely to advocate and engineer progressive sentencing reforms.  Sadly and tellingly, as well detailed here at the Law Librarian Blog, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi aggressive agenda for the first 100 legislative hours of the 110th Congress did not include any criminal justice reform. 

January 23, 2007 at 04:33 PM | Permalink

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Comments

The Second Chance Act -- named of course for that line from the 2004 SOTU -- came within a vote of passage at the end of the last Session, and is already well into markup again.

Posted by: Peter G | Jan 23, 2007 5:37:58 PM

State sentencing reform is driven by fiscal necessity. They imprison more than 90% of inmates, having to balance their budgets, and are borrowing from Peter to pay Paul doing so. At the federal level, irrational severe sentencing doesn't bust the federal budget, so it isn't a priority.

Posted by: ohwilleke | Jan 23, 2007 5:46:00 PM

I don't think that most States are borrowing to pay for the increased cost of correction instead they are reallocating funds within their general funds. This has been going on gradually with the net effect that corrections small slice of the pie has increased in significantly in size while the larger slices for education, health and human services slices have decreased slightly.

If you were to ask voters if they want to fund the increased cost of corrections by reducing funding for education, health and human services most would say no. Attempts to reduce the cost of corrections usually result in the proponents being accused of being "soft on crime" or "irresponsible about public safety". Such attacks are used by both parties and are considered to be effective (perhaps not as effective recently).

A former California judge was quoted in another thread as saying the most serious problem is caused by repeat (mostly non violent) offenders overwhelming the courts and retuning to prison. That true on other States as well. But the slogan is that mandatory minimum sentences (these apply to primarily to violent offenders the minority of new prison admissions) are the main cause of prison crowding. The slogan is wrong.

Posted by: John Neff | Jan 24, 2007 8:48:27 PM

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