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March 10, 2016

Rep Lamar Smith makes case against federal sentencing reform by questioning success of Texas reforms

One recurring theme of many advocates for federal sentencing reform is that state-level reforms, lead notably by Texas, have been successful at reducing incarceration levels without seeing an increase in crime. But at the end of this new Washington Times commentary, headlined "How weak prison terms endanger the innocent: Mandatory minimums keep the guilty behind bars to pay their debt to society," US House Representative Lamar Smith from Texas questions whether Texas reforms have truly been effective. Here are some notable excerpts from the piece:

Congress should be wary of reducing federal prison sentences. Unfortunately, much of the discussion on sentencing laws has focused on the criminals. What about the victims of their crimes? What about the dangers of putting these offenders back out on the streets where many prey again on law-abiding citizens?

The lives and property of innocent Americans are at stake.  Past experience should persuade us not to weaken penalties, which could lead to thousands of dangerous criminals being released into our communities....

Supporters of lower prison sentences also argue that judges need more discretion.  They say that a one-size-fits-all penalty does not allow for consideration of mitigating factors, which might be necessary to determine a fair sentence.

But prior experience with judicial discretion in sentencing counters this claim.  It is exactly the problem of too much discretion in the hands of activist judges that fueled the decades-long crime wave that preceded mandatory minimum sentences.  Furthermore, judicial discretion led to widespread discrepancies in sentences, even when the circumstances were similar.

The minimum sentencing structure ensures that judges apply a uniform penalty based on the crime, not on the judge’s subjective opinion.  Criminals receive equal punishment for equal crimes.  And the removal of hardened criminals from our streets for longer periods of time helps make our neighborhoods safer....

In my home state of Texas, new policies sought to reduce incarceration time and focus resources on treatment and post-release supervision.  Yet almost one-quarter of inmates released have been rearrested and sent back to prison within three years.  Early release programs don’t appear to be working.

Mandatory minimums help keep these individuals behind bars where they belong.  That’s one explanation for why crime rates remain down.  The purpose of criminal law is to punish bad behavior, deter criminal acts and protect the American people.  Releasing prisoners too soon could condemn many Americans to becoming victims of violence.  This can be avoided if prisoners are not released before their sentences have been served.

March 10, 2016 at 08:35 AM | Permalink


Lamar Smith is unhappy because "almost one-quarter of inmates released have been rearrested and sent back to prison within three years." That is on par with what is reported federally. See, Recidivism Among Federal Offenders: A Comprehensive Review. Parenthetically, since we are dealing with individuals and not mass produced widgets what would be an acceptable recidivism rate? If one follows Representative Smith's logic that means the other 3 out 4 released inmates that don't screw up should suffer the same fate as those who do reoffend. That type of logic is expensive -- it would mean that for each re-offender the government would not only have to pay incarceration costs for the reoffender, but also for the three inmates that did not reoffend until full-term expiration of all of their sentences. Seems to me that we know the recidivism rate so we now need to know why released offenders recidivate and work on eliminating those forces to lower the recidivism rates. Incapacitation alone does not reduce the recidivism rate.

Posted by: ? | Mar 10, 2016 10:09:53 AM

Some are going to learn better crime behaviors in prison. The longer they are in the more they learn. So lets stop at every meal. Second time offenders are the ones who need longer sentences. First time offenders need a pistol whipping. All offenders need jobs. The koch head brothers sent all the jobs to China. Second time offenders need to be sent to China. We need a penal colony to send inmates to from whence they can not return to the U.S. In days of old the Brits had Georgia which is now a state in the U.S. I suggest that we take over Somalia. It is already a pirate territory. Send the inmates there with a caveat that if they come back to our shore they get shot on sight.

Posted by: BarkinDog | Mar 10, 2016 10:35:03 AM

Georgia was a debtor's colony, not generally criminal. Lamar Smith is a clod. I say this as a Texan and a Republican, sorta.

Posted by: Fat Bastard | Mar 10, 2016 1:26:09 PM

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