Deborah Fleischaker [Director of State Legislative Affairs, Families Against Mandatory Minimums]: "Last week, John Gramlich of the indispensable news site, stateline.org, reported on the political fallout in several states where policymakers have employed early prison release programs to combat overcrowded prisons and rising budget deficits. Several cash-strapped states from Florida to California have looked for budget savings by expediting the release of non-violent offenders, a move that has angered some police and victims' rights groups. While early releases are sometimes effective, they are, at best, a short-term solution to a long-term problem. States would be better off revisiting the mindless mandatory minimum laws they passed a generation ago which fill their prisons with non-violent offenders and stretch their budgets beyond repair.
The problem state lawmakers are confronting is a real one. Last year, the Pew Center for the States, released a jaw-dropping report revealing that one in thirty-one Americans are either in jail or prison, or on parole or probation. The report concluded that corrections spending was the fastest expanding major segment of state budgets. State corrections costs now top $50 billion annually and consume one in every 15 discretionary dollars.
These budget figures are surprising, but according to the Pew researchers, their cause is not. "The remarkable rise in corrections spending wasn't fate or even the natural consequence of spikes in crime," the authors wrote. "It was the result of state policy choices that sent more people to prison and kept them there longer. The sentencing and release laws passed in the 1980s and 1990s put so many more people behind bars that last year the incarcerated population reached 2.3 million and, for the first time, one in 100 adults was in prison or jail."
Skyrocketing prison populations beget exponential increases in corrections spending, with no corresponding increase in public safety. This explosion in unnecessary spending, on top of a soft economy, is wreaking havoc on state budgets. Unfortunately, it seems that many lawmakers are looking for any fix except the most obvious and necessary reform – that is, repealing the policies that caused the crisis.
Some forward-looking states have already begun eliminating the mandatory minimum sentencing laws that cause these problems. Over the past year, New York, New Jersey, and Rhode Island have repealed or narrowed their most egregious mandatory sentencing laws. Other states, such as Massachusetts, are debating significant reforms. In Pennsylvania, the legislature directed the state sentencing commission to examine the impact of mandatory minimum laws. The study's conclusion was that neither the length of the sentence nor the imposition of a mandatory minimum penalty had any impact on recidivism. This finding is consistent with other research which has been unable to verify the purported benefits of mandatory sentences on crime control.
Conversely, there is no evidence to suggest that repealing mandatory sentences would lead to an increase in crime. In fact, states that have significantly reformed mandatory minimums, as Michigan did in 1998 and 2003, have not experienced increasing levels of crime. More and more states – notably, both red and blue states – are employing proven alternatives, such as drug courts and risk-based sentencing policies, which are more effective and cost-efficient than lengthy, mandatory sentences, especially when dealing with non-violent drug offenders.
Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) knows well the challenges confronting states with overflowing prison populations. Further, we acknowledge that many prison release programs are designed in ways to protect public safety. Indeed, Mr. Gramlich's article cited a review by the National Council on Crime and Delinquency of at least 12 prison release studies which found unchanged or lower recidivism rates among early released prisoners. Whether all programs have equally strong safeguards in place is not clear. What is clear, however, is that no matter how well-designed they are, prison release programs will continue to suffer from the impression that they are being employed solely to achieve a targeted level of budget savings.
There is a better solution. Repealing mandatory minimum sentencing laws not only saves taxpayers the burden of subsidizing a bloated prison system, but it gives states (and courts) the freedom to choose more effective alternatives to reduce crime."
Opinions expressed in JURIST Commentary are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of JURIST's editors, staff, donors or the University of Pittsburgh.