A new report by Stateline.org details the innovative strategies certain states are employing to combat a soaring prison population. The report comes on the heels of earlier projections by the Pew Charitable Trust indicating that prison growth could cost up to $27.5 billion over the next five years. In fact, the figures compiled by Pew are staggering: “By 2011 one in every 178 U.S. residents will live in prison….an increase of more than 192,000 from 2006.” Some states will feel this sting more than others; for example, “[u]nless Montana, Arizona, Alaska, Idaho and Vermont change their sentencing or release practices, they can expect to see their prison systems grow by one third or more.” According to Pew, the growing incarceration rate is causally related to, among other things, mandatory minimum policies, reduced parole grant rates, and low tolerance lock-up policies for those who violate the rules of their release.
Although some states are simply attempting to throw money at the prison problem (see California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s plan to spend $7.7 billion on building more prisons), the Stateline report details the efforts of many states to decrease the number of incarcerated citizens. States such as Kansas and Texas are actually embracing — in a bipartisan way – programs to rehabilitate lower risk, non-violent offenders and New York recently eliminated overly punitive drug possession laws, calling them a relic of the past. Of course, it bears noting that in the past fifteen years, California enacted more than 1,000 mandatory minimum laws (including the “three strikes and you’re out” bill), while New York has slowly rolled back its most harsh mandatory drug possession statutes; meanwhile, New York is closing prisons and California continues to build.
True, the New York-California comparison is an oversimplification, but the surging incarceration rate cannot be denied. As states look for solutions, it is time to rethink some of the sentencing guidelines that impersonally place offenders in prison and ignore the specifics of their situation. Of course, anyone following the Supreme Court knows that sentencing decisions have been among the Court’s most contentious over the past seven years (see United States v. Booker (2005)). But the Court can only go so far in this area; the prison problem calls for a legislative response.
There is some speculation that the Congress will take up sentencing reform in the near future, and there are plenty of areas that require attention. They could start by attending to the 100:1 disparity in crack versus cocaine sentencing. That’s right, one caught with 5 grams of crack will receive an identical mandatory sentence as the offender apprehended with 500 grams of powder. The net effect: cocaine laws (smartly) target those more apt to sell drugs, while crack laws target even the individual addict. Putting aside the racial undertones inherent in this disparity, does it really make sense to incarcerate (at taxpayer expense) the individual with a night’s worth of crack for 20+ years, given that our prisons are bursting at the seams?
It is unclear whether Congress will actually address smart sentencing reform before 2008, but the intricacies involved in sentencing policy demand a legislative response. True, the Congress may continue to sit idly by, passing the buck to the courts. In fact, the Court recently granted cert on the crack disparity issue (see Kimbrough v. United States, No. 06-6330) and it will be interesting to see if the Court’s eventual decision prods Congress into action. Meanwhile, as prison populations soar and continue to burden state budgets, it is the states that are attempting meaningful reform. Sure would be nice if the feds would step up and cooperate.