Hopefully, this is an idea that will take a front seat with policy makers across the country. Allowing state budgets to include more funding for treatment and alternatives has a cost savings that drastically outdoes the money badly spent on bricks, mortar and warehousing.
NY TIMES - The mandatory sentencing craze that began in the 1970s was a public-policy disaster. It drove up inmate populations and corrections costs and forced the states to choose between building prisons and building schools or funding medical care for the indigent. It filled the prisons to bursting with nonviolent drug offenders who would have been more cheaply and more appropriately dealt with through treatment. It tied the hands of judges and ruined countless young lives by mandating lengthy prison terms in cases where leniency was warranted. It undermined confidence in the fairness of the justice system by singling out poor and minority offenders while largely exempting the white and wealthy.
The Supreme Court recognized the flaws in this system last week when it ruled that federal judges were justified in handing out lower sentences for drug offenders than were laid out in federal sentencing guidelines. The United States Sentencing Commission, the independent body that sets those guidelines, has called for easing drug-crime sentences for some categories of offenders and for doing so retroactively. In addition, bills pending in Congress would rewrite federal drug statutes, making treatment more readily available and sentences fairer and more sensible.
Nowhere is repeal of mandatory-sentencing policies more urgently needed than in New York, which sparked an unfortunate national trend when it passed its draconian Rockefeller drug laws in the 1970s. Local prosecutors tend to love this law because it allows them to bypass judges and decide unilaterally who goes to jail and for how long.
But the general public is increasingly skeptical of a system that railroads young, first-time offenders straight to prison with no hope of treatment or reprieve. In an often-cited 2002 poll by The New York Times, for example, 79 percent of respondents favored changing the law to give judges control over sentencing. And 83 percent said that judges should be allowed to send low-level drug offenders to treatment instead of prison.
The State Legislature has tinkered at the margins of these horrific laws, but stopped short of restoring judicial discretions. The time is clearly right for that crucial next step. The Legislature needs to gear up for the change, and Gov. Eliot Spitzer, who has thus far tiptoed around the subject, needs to set the stage when he delivers his State of the State message early next month.