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April 18, 2012

"Taxpayers should demand cost-effective crime policies"

The title of this post is the headline of this commentary published yesterday at The Hill's Congress Blog. It was authored by Julie Stewart, the president and founder of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, and here are excerpts:

Last year, Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist, the Cato Institute’s director of criminal justice, Tim Lynch, and former Republican congressman and Bush administration DEA chief, Asa Hutchinson, joined me for a briefing to discuss the dozens of ways Congress and the administration could cut millions from wasteful anti-crime programs without jeopardizing public safety.  Some cost-cutting reforms, like allowing elderly and ill patients (who pose no threat to society) to leave prison early and serve out their punishment in alternate ways, are obvious and overdue.

Others, like eliminating wasteful mandatory minimum sentencing laws, are being approved by cash-strapped states across the country.  Governors and state lawmakers do not love their children any less, but they realize that locking up nonviolent criminals for decades is not a cost-effective way to keep their communities safe.  New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R-NJ) recently announced an ambitious plan to require treatment in lieu of prison for all first-time drug offenders in the Garden State.  Christie’s pitch?  Since treatment is a fraction of the cost of prison, his new policy will save money and lives.

Contrast this common-sense approach with federal law, where a mother like Sabrina Giles is sentenced to 12 years in prison for allowing her abusive boyfriend to run his meth dealing business out of her New Mexico house.  Ms. Giles, who had never even been arrested before, was gainfully employed and providing for her young daughter, despite struggling with substance abuse.  What she needed was drug treatment, but what she got was more than a decade in federal prison.  Her daughter was forced to grow up without the mother she loved and is now a teenager.

This isn’t tough on crime -- it’s just stupid.

Fortunately, some in Washington, D.C. are ready for reform.  Two years ago, anti-tax hero Norquist and former American Conservative Union president David Keene testified before the House Crime Subcommittee in opposition to federal mandatory minimum sentences.  Said Norquist, “The benefits, if any, of mandatory minimum sentences do not justify…[the] burden to taxpayers.”  The subcommittee’s ranking member, Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) has long supported reform.  More recently, Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) announced his strong opposition to mandatory minimums.  Paul’s position makes sense given his Tea Party roots and that coalition’s aversion to excessive federal spending.

Most encouraging, the American public gets it.  When asked by Pew if they agree with the statement, “Some of the money that we are spending on locking up low-risk, nonviolent inmates should be shifted to strengthening community corrections programs like probation and parole,” a remarkable 85 percent of voters agreed.

It’s time to stop wasting money on anti-crime programs and policies that don’t keep us safe, but make our tax bills higher.

April 18, 2012 at 05:27 PM | Permalink


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Portugal decriminalized drug possession around 2001. The CATO Institue and Glenn Greenwald (the excellent columnist who writes for Saln) conducted a study and found that the country's decriminalization resulted in decreased drug use.

Our country's perpetuation of its drug war is not economically feasible. It is not a war that can be "won." And, it is immoral to imprison people for choosing to ingest drugs of their own free will.

We're mentally ill if we don't stop this drug war. Portugal did it, and experienced success. We should follow their lead.

Posted by: Calif. Capital Defense Counsel | Apr 18, 2012 9:51:01 PM

Julie Stewart has been putting out the same press release with different fill-in-the-blank names for about 20 years.

Nowhere is there any mention of why we adopted MM's in the first place. The reason was that lenient sentencing in the face of rising crime became a national scandal in the sixties and seventies. We have done something about it -- something successful, as we now have record low crime rates. MM's are part of that success. But you won't hear a word about it from FAMM.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Apr 18, 2012 10:44:04 PM

Bill, what do you make of Chris Christie's plan? Seems different for a US Atty-turned-governor.

Posted by: Thinkaboutit | Apr 18, 2012 11:20:13 PM

I believe the reason mandatory minimums were adopted was to decrease the disparity of sentencing for like infractions. It handed the disparity decisions to prosecutors and removed it from the discretion of the judge. Charging decisions, the rapid inflation of criminal code and the increasing length of mandatory minimum sentences has attracted the attention of voters. I do think that voters are beginning to see that it is no longer fiscally responsible nor is it compatible with civil liberties.

Posted by: beth | Apr 19, 2012 12:56:26 AM

All legal remedies are procedures on the body. For example a small fine takes away the fruit of labor and limited life time expended earning the money to pay it. (This quantity is different between people with disparate earning ability. So fines should be based on individual hourly rate of earnings rather than on any single amount of money. A hundred dollar fine has different punitive effect on someone making $100 an hour versus another making $100 a week.) A warning letter induces fear, and stress responses in the body. An open investigation and discovery are stressful, and innately punitive even if innocent and the charges are dismissed. These stress responses are personal injuries, and should be compensated by the prosecution to all innocent parties.

Laws should be proven safe and effective in a small jurisdiction before enactment. All laws not subjected to such testing violate the Establishment Clause being based on faith, an unlawful basis in our secular nation. All laws not subjected to such testing also violate Fifth Amendment Procedural Due Process, and all treaty obligations mandating the protection of human experimental subjects. The legislators enacting, and the executives signing them may be guilty of crimes against humanity. Such unproven laws are a good justification for at least indictments and trials at the Hague for such violations.

Luckily, mandatory sentencing guidelines showed success in a naturalistic experiment. They dropped crime 40% across the board. They also dropped lawyer emnployment, and were therefore reversed by the Supreme Court, led by conservative Justice Scalia. Lawyer rent seeking trumps all ideology, personal belief, and even self-interest and the interest of one's family.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Apr 19, 2012 6:36:34 AM


Such a simplistic outlook could also be used to convince Americans that we should be taking the approach Singapore does.

Posted by: TarlsQtr | Apr 19, 2012 10:17:02 AM

I think that too much attention has been paid to the federal criminal justice system and not enough to the state systems, It appears the general public is familiar with the various slogans that the ideologically motivated special interest groups use but only a handful have made a serious study of their own state system.

The situation in the various state legislatures is not much better. There are very few attorneys in a typical state legislature and most of them have little or no experience with criminal law. It appears that a common feature of state systems is that the case load is too high to be processed in a timely manner with available resources. That accounts for much of the inefficiency of the system.

I think the most important reason for the high cost is that we re-incarcerate the same people. That is a symptom of a failed criminal justice system. The main obstacle to improvement is that the high priests of the criminal justice system will not admit it has failed.

Posted by: John Neff | Apr 19, 2012 1:10:15 PM

Upwards of 70% of the MM were enacted during election yrs, to simply appear tough on crime and get elected..We need less of the Roger Clemens cases and a whole lot mos re technical training for those that
do go away...Idea is to avoid repeats...The time served for Federal is
way too long....Yes Bill we all know crime has went down.. We can't
continue to spend at this pace.. No matter what pcnt of the budget is spent...All aspects of Federal is going to have to cut back...

Federal needs to increase good time days to 65% of time served...And
let'em attend tech classes at a public facility during the day, for those that are workable and can learn...Anything at a federal facilty is just mickey mouse training..

Posted by: Josh2 | Apr 19, 2012 9:27:04 PM

Josh2 --

"Yes Bill we all know crime has [gone] down."

How breezily dismissive you are of the fact that thousands upon thousands of people have been saved from being murdered, raped, robbed, beaten to a pulp and swindled.

Ready to kiss that goodbye?

Posted by: Bill Otis | Apr 20, 2012 9:18:47 AM

I don't think we're talking about those who murder, rape, rob and beat people to a pulp. I read the article about non-violent inmates.

Posted by: beth | Apr 20, 2012 2:43:13 PM

Beth, this is more in line with what I had in mind...People that kill get Life in the federal system. Not a lot of rapists in there.. I am addressing drugs and minor gun bumps, 3 owi's and were arrested with a buddy who had .22 shells in his glove box...Or the guy went trap shooting, strictly a sporting thing...We have one here that has done it, so it happens...Bill, no doubt longer sentences has helped.. But not to the degree that the Federal sentence has gone....These people have long since forgotten what life on the outside is like, much less what got them there...( to a degree ) So lets train them, (I indicated for those that are workable and have some talent), so when they get out they can get a better job.. Better jobs mean they hang with better minds.. Better minds normally keep out of trouble....Therefore, we need to get some turnaround in these Federal prisons, the ones that need to go away, get their turn, but not for decades for drugs....Currently 3 strikes and your out in Federal.. Yes some from my area are doing life for drugs.....Really doesnot make sense.....Bill your last word, swindled.. Depends on to what degree. A madoff type...About time an example has been set...$25K...$50K...Get real...Get them out...

Posted by: Abe | Apr 20, 2012 3:35:15 PM

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