For Lesser Crimes, Rethinking Life Behind Bars
By JOHN TIERNEY
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Stephanie George and Judge Roger Vinson had quite different opinions about the lockbox seized by the police from her home in Pensacola. She insisted she had no idea that a former boyfriend had hidden it in her attic. Judge Vinson considered the lockbox, containing a half-kilogram of cocaine, to be evidence of her guilt.
But the defendant and the judge fully agreed about the fairness of the sentence he imposed in federal court.
“Even though you have been involved in drugs and drug dealing,” Judge Vinson told Ms. George, “your role has basically been as a girlfriend and bag holder and money holder but not actively involved in the drug dealing, so certainly in my judgment it does not warrant a life sentence.”
Yet the judge had no other option on that morning 15 years ago. As her stunned family watched, Ms. George, then 27, who had never been accused of violence, was led from the courtroom to serve a sentence of life without parole.
“I remember my mom crying out and asking the Lord why,” said Ms. George, now 42, in an interview at the Federal Correctional Institution in Tallahassee. “Sometimes I still can’t believe myself it could happen in America.”
Her sentence reflected a revolution in public policy, often called mass incarceration, that appears increasingly dubious to both conservative and liberal social scientists. They point to evidence that mass incarceration is no longer a cost-effective way to make streets safer, and may even be promoting crime instead of suppressing it.
Three decades of stricter drug laws, reduced parole and rigid sentencing rules have lengthened prison terms and more than tripled the percentage of Americans behind bars. The United States has the highest reported rate of incarceration of any country: about one in 100 adults, a total of nearly 2.3 million people in prison or jail.
But today there is growing sentiment that these policies have gone too far, causing too many Americans like Ms. George to be locked up for too long at too great a price — economically and socially.
The criticism is resonating with some state and federal officials, who have started taking steps to stop the prison population’s growth. The social scientists are attracting attention partly because the drop in crime has made it a less potent political issue, and partly because of the states’ financial problems.
State spending on corrections, after adjusting for inflation, has more than tripled in the past three decades, making it the fastest-growing budgetary cost except Medicaid. Even though the prison population has leveled off in the past several years, the costs remain so high that states are being forced to reduce spending in other areas.
Three decades ago, California spent 10 percent of its budget on higher education and 3 percent on prisons. In recent years the prison share of the budget rose above 10 percent while the share for higher education fell below 8 percent. As university administrators in California increase tuition to cover their deficits, they complain that the state spends much more on each prisoner — nearly $50,000 per year — than on each student.
Many researchers agree that the rise in imprisonment produced some initial benefits, particularly in urban neighborhoods, where violence decreased significantly in the 1990s. But as sentences lengthened and the prison population kept growing, it included more and more nonviolent criminals like Ms. George.
Half a million people are now in prison or jail for drug offenses, about 10 times the number in 1980, and there have been especially sharp increases in incarceration rates for women and for people over 55, long past the peak age for violent crime. In all, about 1.3 million people, more than half of those behind bars, are in prison or jail for nonviolent offenses.
Researchers note that the policies have done little to stem the flow of illegal drugs. And they say goals like keeping street violence in check could be achieved without the expense of locking up so many criminals for so long.
While many scholars still favor tough treatment for violent offenders, they have begun suggesting alternatives for other criminals. James Q. Wilson, the conservative social scientist whose work in the 1970s helped inspire tougher policies on prison, several years ago recommended diverting more nonviolent drug offenders from prisons to treatment programs.
Two of his collaborators, George L. Kelling of the Manhattan Institute and John J. DiIulio Jr. of the University of Pennsylvania, have joined with prominent scholars and politicians, including Jeb Bush and Newt Gingrich, in a group called Right on Crime. It advocates more selective incarceration and warns that current policies “have the unintended consequence of hardening nonviolent, low-risk offenders” so that they become “a greater risk to the public than when they entered.”
These views are hardly universal, particularly among elected officials worried about a surge in crime if the prison population shrinks. Prosecutors have resisted attempts to change the system, contending that the strict sentences deter crime and induce suspects to cooperate because the penalties provide the police and prosecutors with so much leverage.
Some of the strongest evidence for the benefit of incarceration came from studies by a University of Chicago economist, Steven D. Levitt, who found that penal policies were a major factor in reducing crime during the 1990s. But as crime continued declining and the prison population kept growing, the returns diminished.
“We know that harsher punishments lead to less crime, but we also know that the millionth prisoner we lock up is a lot less dangerous to society than the first guy we lock up,” Dr. Levitt said. “In the mid-1990s I concluded that the social benefits approximately equaled the costs of incarceration. Today, my guess is that the costs outweigh the benefits at the margins. I think we should be shrinking the prison population by at least one-third.”
Some social scientists argue that the incarceration rate is now so high that the net effect is “crimogenic”: creating more crime over the long term by harming the social fabric in communities and permanently damaging the economic prospects of prisoners as well as their families. Nationally, about one in 40 children have a parent in prison. Among black children, one in 15 have a parent in prison.
Cocaine in the Attic
Ms. George was a young single mother when she first got in trouble with drugs and the law. One of her children was fathered by a crack dealer, Michael Dickey, who went to prison in the early 1990s for drug and firearm offenses.
“When he went away, I was at home with the kids struggling to pay bills,” Ms. George said. “The only way I knew to get money quick was selling crack. I was never a user, but from being around him I pretty much knew how to get it.”
After the police caught her making crack sales of $40 and $120 — which were counted as separate felonies — she was sentenced, at 23, to nine months in a work-release program. That meant working at her mother’s hair salon in Pensacola during the day and spending nights at the county jail, away from her three young children.
“When I caught that first charge, it scared me to death,” she recalled. “I thought, my God, being away from my kids, this is not what I want. I promised them I would never let it happen again.”
When Mr. Dickey got out of prison in 1995, she said, she refused to resume their relationship, but she did allow him into her apartment sometimes to see their daughter. One evening, shortly after he had arrived, the police showed up with a search warrant and a ladder.
“I didn’t know what they were doing with a ladder in a one-story building,” Ms. George said. “They went into a closet and opened a little attic space I’d never seen before and brought down the lockbox. He gave them a key to open it. When I saw what was in it, I was so mad I jumped across the table at him and started hitting him.”Mr. Dickey said he had paid her to store the cocaine at her home. At the trial, other defendants said she was present during drug transactions conducted by Mr. Dickey and other dealers she dated, and sometimes delivered cash or crack for her boyfriends. Ms. George denied those accusations, which her lawyer argued were uncorroborated and self-serving. After the jury convicted her of being part of a conspiracy to distribute cocaine, she told the judge at her sentencing: “I just want to say I didn’t do it. I don’t want to be away from my kids.” http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/12/science/mandatory-prison-sentences-face-growing-skepticism.html?smid=fb-share&_r=0&pagewanted=print