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Stiff prison sentences aren’t a magic cure for crime

Updated: September 14, 2013 6:13AM

Incarceration plays an important role in protecting the public, but for 40 years our nation has overused it, wasting lives and money.

On Monday, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder acknowledged as much when he told the American Bar Association in San Francisco that the federal government will scale back stiff sentences for some drug crimes and divert low-level offenders to drug treatment and community service programs.

This is a huge and welcome step toward right-sizing our federal prison system, one we have long argued for as an editorial page. Illinois should pay attention, and do more to get in step with other states that are significantly reducing their prison populations.

Harsh prison terms, including mandatory minimum sentences, long were politically popular as a way to crack down on crime. But mandatory sentences take away judges’ ability to adjust punishment when the facts call for it. Instead, we drive up costs and fill prisons with people who don’t need to be there and who come out more inclined to commit crimes than when they went in. We need to stop telling judges ahead of time how to rule in every circumstance. As Holder said, “We cannot simply prosecute or incarcerate our way to becoming a safer nation.”

The emphasis on incarceration has been far from cheap. The Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation says that over the past 30 years, corrections costs have been the second-fastest growing area of state budgets, after Medicaid. As Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said in a statement Monday, “The mandatory minimum sentence policy has led to severe overcrowding in our prison system and swelled taxpayer spending on incarceration and detention.”

Even states where conservatives hold sway such as Arkansas and Texas — and national Republican leaders such as Jeb Bush — believe fewer low-level drug offenders belong in prison. Holder said 17 states have shifted money from building prisons to treatment and supervision. The Pew Charitable Trusts estimates that states working to reduce their prison populations will save more than $4 billion over the next several years. Those states have come to realize what research shows: Stiff sentences are not a magical solution to crime.

Illinois took a step forward with the Crime Reduction Act of 2009, but the subsequent replacement of the state’s “Meritorious Good Time” system with a program that’s much less aggressive in reducing unnecessary prison time has had the unfortunate effect of driving the state’s prison population to near-record levels. Although the total prison population of 48,783 is down from 49,494 last year, we have twice the number of prisoners we did a generation ago.

Preckwinkle and Gov. Pat Quinn, who closed two youth incarceration facilities and two adult prisons, have been pushing programs to divert nonviolent offenders into alternatives to prison. More work needs to be done on this front.

One promising proposal that will be brought to the Legislature when it reconvenes would offer prisoners at least 50 years old who have served at least 25 years an opportunity to go before the Illinois Prisoner Review Board and request parole. By no means should all these inmates be freed, but those who are ill or who have changed their behavior should be considered. Older prisoners cost the state roughly $75,000 a year, prison reform advocates estimate, compared with the average of about $22,000. Illinois doesn’t need to incarcerate so many people who have walkers or wheelchairs or who are on kidney dialysis. Neither does the federal government, which is why Holder also called for allowing the release of some elderly, nonviolent offenders from federal prisons.

Maintaining momentum on diverting offenders from prison won’t be easy. As soon as someone who doesn’t get a stiff term behind bars commits a serious crime, cries will go up to reimpose harsher sentences. But we’ve learned our lesson. Sending vast numbers of low-level, nonviolent offenders to prison just doesn’t work.

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