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August 10, 2010

Interesting ground-level perspective on needed NJ reforms for sentencing and corrections

The Trenton Times has this interesting new op-ed headlined "To curb corrections costs, reconsider sentencing, parole."  The piece is authored by David Shebses, who worked for many years at the East Jersey State Prison "as supervisor for education and then as an executive assistant to the warden."  Here are excerpts from his commentary:

[A] little historical perspective.  When I started my career in 1970, New Jersey's population was just under 7.2 million, and roughly 5,500 people were incarcerated in the state's nine institutions....

[Thereafter] mandatory minimums were used on crimes such as murder, assault and robbery.  As the 1980s unfolded, the Legislature decided to apply this sentencing concept to drug-related crimes, so that by 1990, the prison population exploded.  It rose more than fivefold, from 5,500 inmates in 1970 to more than 30,000 inmates in 1990, while New Jersey's population had only risen by 6 percent, to 7.73 million....

[I] suggest the following:

1) Eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for all crimes....

2) Stop incarcerating most people who are convicted of using most drugs....

3) Abolish the parole system.  Parole is based on a false premise, namely, that it is possible to predict human behavior.  It is not possible....

4) Instead of parole, put money and staff into the county probation departments and have the state assume the responsibilities for both probation and re-entry programs....

5) Consider that how long an inmate serves should be a matter of statute and trial....

Incarceration is expensive and necessary for violent and repetitive offenders.  But we have too many people incarcerated due to the mandatory minimum system and the zero-tolerance philosophy that underlies it.  Many of these people just don't need to be in jail, and their incarceration costs the rest of us a fortune.

August 10, 2010 at 10:36 AM | Permalink


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From your mouth to the ear of the Feds. Good for state offenses, better for federal.

Posted by: Anon | Aug 10, 2010 3:06:14 PM

I agree the comments are interesting but to some degree they are specific to New Jersey. The author was correct that mandatory minimum sentences were intended to make sentencing proportional and uniform but instead they transfered discretion from the judge to the prosecutor and aggravated the abuses of plea bargaining.

I doubt that anyone in the field of corrections thinks that it is possible to predict individual human behavior. Risk assessment instruments have improved but they are still imperfect tools and on occasion there is a nasty surprise.

When parole has been eliminated in the past it was found that the cure was worse than the disease. Placing the parole board under the board of corrections would cause serious conflicts of interest in my opinion and I would rather see them have annual joint meetings where they can discuss their common problems.

Amy Bach has called for independent review of the courts and I think that independent review of corrections would also be useful.

Posted by: John Neff | Aug 11, 2010 9:21:38 AM

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