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    A Times Editorial

    The huge cost of harsh sentences

    © St. Petersburg Times
    published December 22, 2002

    Sometimes the right things happen for the wrong reasons. With state after state facing looming budget deficits, legislatures are starting to look anew at the harsh sentencing laws passed during the era when being "tough on crime" was a ticket to political office. Finally, counterproductive laws, such as mandatory minimums that put nonviolent, first-time drug offenders away for a decade or more, are being reviewed. It may be happening due to a new interest in the bottom line, but whatever the reason, the trend is positive.

    This nation has built itself into one of the largest bastilles in the world. Spurred along by politicians pandering to the public's fear of crime, the prison building boom during the last 30 years has resulted in a 500-percent increase in the number of state prisoners. We now spend $30-billion annually to keep more than 2-million inmates in our nation's prisons and jails. But with crime rates having dropped significantly and lawmakers looking for places to trim expenses, prison budgets are finally turning up as an option for the chopping block.

    Of course, there is a right way and a wrong way to make needed cuts, and Kentucky has chosen the latter. The governor there has ordered the release of 567 prisoners as part of the effort to address a $500-million budget deficit. But this backdoor approach is too willy-nilly and may result in prisoners being released who pose a continuing danger to society. More sensible approaches are under consideration in Michigan and Kansas, where the front door is addressed.

    In Michigan, the Legislature responded to budget constraints by repealing its mandatory-minimum sentencing laws -- a scheme so harsh that some people were given life sentences for mere possession of heroin or cocaine. Republican Gov. John Engler is expected to sign the repeal. In Kansas, cost cutting has led the Kansas Sentencing Commission, a bipartisan panel of lawmakers and others, to recommend that those arrested for drug possession, with no violent crimes or drug trafficking offenses in their background, should be diverted into treatment.

    These reasonable reforms are long overdue, and they mirror an encouraging national trend. Through voter initiative or legislative reform, states are starting to treat drug offenses as a public health problem. Anyone who isn't a drug-war zealot can't help but question the rationality of sentencing schemes that put nonviolent addicts behind bars rather than providing them with treatment. According to the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit group that investigates the consequences of our national corrections policies, of the $5-billion spent annually for keeping people convicted of drug crimes behind bars, 75 percent goes toward the costs of warehousing nonviolent offenders. In a time of tight budgets, this expenditure is irresponsible.

    Florida imposes mandatory-minimum sentences of 25 years for illegally carrying a pillbox-worth of drugs such as Oxycontin, a medication used to treat chronic pain that has been abused by the dance-club set. When our legislators sit down in March to figure out how to close the gaping hole in the budget, here's a place to start.

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