Prisons Are Not Where The Budget Should Be Cut – For Any Reason


NYT from 2007 

Sometimes we Americans have to wonder just what the heck our lawmakers are thinking.

Back in 2010, a bi-partisan group of congresscritters – including Dick Durbin (D-IL), Jeff Sessions (R-AL) and both of the Pauls – were part of a consortium that passed something called the “Fair Sentencing Act” which “reduced the disparity between the amount of crack cocaine and powder cocaine needed to trigger certain United States federal criminal penalties from a 100:1 weight ratio to an 18:1 weight ratio and eliminated the five-year mandatory minimum sentence for simple possession of crack cocaine, among other provisions.”  (Or, in order to get heftier prison time for possession of the real thing, as opposed to crack, people convicted of having powder cocaine had to have less of it.)

The reasoning given at the time was to a) keep US Law Enforcement from looking like a laughingstock due to the two forms of cocaine being molecularly the same (forget addictiveness) with differing penalties for possession, b) ease prison crowding by getting the first time offenders out earlier, and c) to reduce the prison budget.

Say what?

Isn’t this one of the purposes of government – specifically law enforcement – to lock up lawbreakers, particularly the ones who present a danger to the community?

But, but, the argument goes, simple possession is just that.  Why should those people get a maximum sentence in prison if all they are guilty of is having some of the drug on them, especially when we have a prison overcrowding problem?

Are these people serious?

Which brings us to Attorney General and Foggy Bottom Amnesia sufferer Eric Holder’s plea and pushing for another act currently in the Senate queue called “Smarter Sentencing Act” sponsored by Mike Lee (R-UT) and, well, well, Dick Durbin again, among others.  (And just what is the senator from the state where the city with the highest crime rate in the country is doing sponsoring bills trying to reduce prison time for drug offenders?)  The idea here is to give federal judges – many of whom are now Obama plants – wider leeway in sentencing.  They could, at their discretion, knock prison time to the absolute minimum without any deference to the maximum.

Gee, I feel safer.

According to Bridget Johnson of PJMedia, keeping costs down is one consideration:

The Bureau of Prisons is nearly 40 percent over capacity with more than 50 percent overcrowding at maximum security facilities. Nearly half of the more than 219,000 federal inmates are there for drug charges, at a tab of nearly $30,000 per year to house a single prisoner.

How that $30,000 figure is calculated is a mystery as there is no detail provided (it is rounded from the FY2013 overall budget figure, dividing the budget number by the number of prisoners).  However, in relation to the overall federal budget, the Bureau of Prisons requested an overall budget of $8.5 billion in FY2014, a tiny fraction of the budget for entitlements (welfare spending alone is $400 billion).

Here’s the question, though, is minimum sentencing enough time to deter crime?  Reported recidivism rates are notoriously high (and the Justice Department’s website with the wizard to get charts and graphs on recidivism has data from 1994.  There have to be more recent numbers out there).  The other question when it comes to sentencing and reducing crime has to do with additional offences:

The Fraternal Order of Police, a national organization of law enforcement officers, also opposed the Act.[23] It argued that because increased violence is associated with the use of crack, especially in urban areas, high penalties for crack-related offenses were justified, relying on U.S. Sentencing Commission statistics showing that 29% of all crack cases from October 1, 2008, through September 30, 2009, involved a weapon, compared to only 16% for powder cocaine. The organization also stated that the enhanced penalties for crack cocaine “have proven useful, and a better course of action would have been to instead raise the penalties for powder cocaine crimes.”[2] The Fair Sentencing Act includes a provision to account for such aggravated cases, allowing penalties to be increased for the use of violence during a drug trafficking offense.

Raising the powder cocaine sentencing time.  Hey, there’s an idea (and it is still the law at this point).  Another law enforcement agency agrees:

The National Sheriff’s Association (NSA) opposed the bill, stating that “Both crack and powder cocaine are dangerous narcotics and plights [sic] on communities throughout the United States. … NSA would consider supporting legislation that would increase the sentence for powder cocaine, rather than significantly reducing the sentence for crack cocaine.”

Leaving that thought for a moment, another topic that crops up every time this issue surfaces came up yet again:

Over the past three decades, Durbin and Lee noted, the number of inmates in federal prisons has shot up 500 percent with disproportionate impact on minority populations, due in large part to lengthy mandatory sentences for drug crimes…

In September, Paul testified before the Judiciary Committee that arrests under mandatory minimum sentencing laws have been so lopsided “because it is easier to go into urban areas and make arrests than suburban areas.”

“If I told you that one out of three African-American males is forbidden by law from voting, you might think I was talking about Jim Crow 50 years ago,” Paul said. “Yet today, a third of African-American males are still prevented from voting because of the War on Drugs. The War on Drugs has disproportionately affected young black males.”

“…It doesn’t take much imagination to understand that it’s easier to round up, arrest and convict poor kids than it is to convict rich kids.”

Ah, there it is.  The race card.  

Uh, Rand, the rich kids get off because their parents can afford better lawyers, doesn’t matter the color of their skin.  Plus, they are more mobile and are more knowledgeable on the law.  According to the New York Times image from 2007 at the top of this piece, they also prefer and can afford the real thing.  (Which is probably the source of this whole exercise and the arguments that the two types of cocaine be treated the same when crack is far more addictive and deadly – and it can be manufactured where powder cocaine is imported.)  The fact that a third of black males are prevented from voting…that’s a result of a decision THEY made to break the law.  Don’t make this about voting rights and expect anyone with sense to back you.

Longer sentences for possession of the real thing would defeat the stated purpose of reducing the prison population, and thus the budget…and having fewer black males in prison.  It would make the police’s job easier, though, city or suburbs, and keep the OTHER crimes that often accompany drug trafficking down.  (That tidbit never gets play.)

This is one of those cases where lawmakers don’t have to live by the laws they make.  For the most part.  Few of the people we have at the top these days started life as a beat cop.  How much of the results of recidivism have they seen?  How many of them have lost friends in the line of duty when a weapon was missed in a patdown and the perp – who was a convicted felon – shot with hands cuffed behind his back while in the squad car?  (Yes, this really happened.  And a good friend and her husband still mourn the death of the best man from their wedding.)

Why, when it comes to law enforcement, should the budget be any part of the discussion when we are spending 500 times more on welfare than incarceration? Letting people back on the streets who show lack of respect for the law is not going to make the streets safer.  Coughing up the cash to keep them all in one place and away from the streets will.

A better case could be made for government spending to build more prison capacity, but no one really wants one of those in their district.

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Categories: Crime, Decline of America

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