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June 10, 2009

"Tough sentencing harder on budgets than on crime"

The title of this post is the headline of this recent op-ed by Marc Mauer of The Sentencing Project.  Here are some excerpts:

[G]overnors across the nation are finding that prison expansion in the midst of an economic crisis is not sustainable, since it cuts into funding for higher education and other vital services.

The fiscal crisis, though, offers an opportunity to get beyond the "tough on crime" rhetoric that has shaped criminal-justice policy and to promote bipartisan initiatives that are both fiscally responsible and enhance public safety. If prison growth is to be brought under control, three areas of policy are critical for success: sentencing reform, prisoner re-entry and reducing parole revocations.

Much of the get-tough approach to sentencing of recent decades has been driven by the war on drugs, which has produced a remarkable rise in the number of drug offenders in prisons and jails — from 40,000 in 1980 to 500,000 today....

By crowding prisons with nonviolent drug and property offenders at an annual cost of $25,000 per prisoner, we have diverted precious resources that could be used in more targeted ways to address serious crime problems.

Indeed, New York reduced its rate of incarceration by 15 percent from 1997 to 2007, yet registered a 40 percent decline in violent crime during that period.

For three decades, criminal-justice policy has been governed by a tough on crime mentality that has produced record prison populations, with only a modest impact on crime.  The fiscal crisis now provides incentives for policy makers to abandon ideological rhetoric and to focus instead on what works to reduce crime.  Such a policy is neither liberal nor conservative but a smart way to focus on the problem.

June 10, 2009 at 02:59 PM | Permalink


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A 40% drop in crime victimization from 1994 to 2007 is a very good achievement for the lawyer. That is not a modest effect. It came from the guidelines and from the high incarceration rate. The lawyer had to respond to the public outcry, and showed he knew how when forced.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Jun 10, 2009 4:25:45 PM

Claus - did you even read the article?

"New York reduced its rate of incarceration by 15 percent from 1997 to 2007, yet registered a 40 percent decline in violent crime during that period."

Posted by: peter | Jun 11, 2009 9:09:56 AM

A large number of factors can influence the rate of growth of a prison population. The New York Department of Corrections mentions three factors resulting from policy changes by former Governor Pataki. The first was that he increased the length of confinement for violent offenders (increased use of incapacitation), the second was he reduced the length of confinement of nonviolent offenders and the third was he increased spending on recidivism prevention.

The violent crime rate in NY started to decrease about 1990 and has continued to fall since then so the increased incapacitation of violent offenders is a contributing factor not the sole cause of the decrease in violent crime.

Posted by: John Neff | Jun 11, 2009 9:55:21 AM

Note that "nonviolent property offender" includes the person who breaks in your bedroom window at midnight with a gun in his waistband, if you don't happen to be home.

Posted by: Kent Scheidegger | Jun 11, 2009 11:05:13 AM


I agree that the use of the term "nonviolent" is imprecise (in particular with respect to burglary and arson). However I was quoting the NY DOC.

About ten years ago the BJS did a study of how many "nonviolent" prisoners had prior arrests and convictions for "violent" offenses and a substantial percentage did. I think they would have made a stronger case (without changing the outcome very much) if they had restricted the study to prior convictions.

Posted by: John Neff | Jun 11, 2009 11:52:29 AM

The point, of course, John, is that if they are playing games with the "non-violent property offender", then why should we take anything they say at face? These guys have an agenda, and it sure isn't public safety.

Posted by: federalist | Jun 11, 2009 2:26:16 PM

John, I was commenting on Mauer's article, not your comment.

In much of the commentary on this issue we see an assumption that criminals are neatly categorized as violent or nonviolent, and we can safely release the latter. There is significant evidence to the contrary, including the study you note.

Posted by: Kent Scheidegger | Jun 11, 2009 3:31:43 PM

If we want to cut down on prison expenses, maybe we can start with this:


This is how the story begins:

Convict stages son’s bar mitzvah in NYC jail
City taxpayers paid overtime for some of the jail staff to help out in event

"NEW YORK (AP) - The young boy read from the Torah during his bar mitzvah, his guests enjoyed a catered kosher spread and the proud father returned to his cell.

"The party for the son of a convicted scam artist was held at a New York City jail, and city taxpayers paid overtime for some of the jail staff to help out.

"New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg was fuming Thursday after learning of the bar mitzvah held at the lower Manhattan lockdown known as The Tombs."

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jun 13, 2009 4:11:11 PM

If the mayor was not informed in advance I can understand why he was annoyed. Situations like this do occur from time to time and how they turn out depends not only on the jail administration but the judge and prosecutor. I wonder if it is true they were not charged for overtime.

Posted by: John Neff | Jun 13, 2009 6:52:03 PM

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