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October 12, 2008

Washington Post notices USSC's look into incarceration alternatives

The Washington Post had this notable article in its Sunday's paper headlined "Sentencing Panel Mulls Alternatives to Prison." Here are excerpts:

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....  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."...

The commission held a symposium to discuss alternatives to incarceration in July after a study this year by the nonpartisan Pew Center on the States revealed that more than one in 100 American adults are in jail or prison.  That study was followed by a Bureau of Justice Statistics report in June that showed that a record 7.2 million people are under supervision in the criminal justice system. The cost, about $45 billion a year, has forced states such as California to export inmates to private prisons as far away as Tennessee....

The commission's consideration of alternatives comes the year after it defied the Bush administration by relaxing tough sentencing guidelines for crack cocaine offenders and making its decision retroactive, so that thousands already in prison could seek release before the end of their terms. About 4,000 mostly nonviolent offenders have taken advantage of the policy so far, according to members of the commission and the federal Bureau of Prisons....

The Sentencing Commission's staff is drafting a proposal amending its guidelines that the panel could submit for public comment in late December.  The commission could make a final decision by May 1. Congress would then have 180 days to reverse the decision.

The fact that the USSC is considering alternative is old news (as detailed in prior posts linked below), but the notion that it is drafting a specific incarceration alternatives proposal for its guidelines is big news.  I'll believe it when I see it, but I like see this indication that the USSC's staff is working on a serious and concrete effort to incorporate more prison alternatives into the federal sentencing guidelines.

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October 12, 2008 at 02:40 PM | Permalink

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