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Violent or Recidivist Prisoners

Saturday, December 18, 2004; Page A25

In The Post's Dec. 7 op-ed "Mandatory Madness," Barry Scheck took aim at mandatory minimum sen- tences, claiming that most of the drug offenders in federal prisons are "low-level, small-time and nonviolent offenders."

Scheck's assertion is inaccurate.

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Justice Department data show that 91 percent of all prisoners (state and federal) are either recidivists or violent offenders. Of those in state prisons, 76 percent are multiple offenders and 62 percent have a history of violence, while a full 66 percent of federal offenders have been convicted of multiple or violent crimes.

Furthermore, most nonviolent criminals are neither low-level nor small-time: 84 percent of these "nonviolent" offenders in state prison have prior criminal records, averaging more than nine arrests and four convictions apiece. In fact, a third of these nonviolent offenders could even be classified as "previously violent," as they have previous arrests for violent crimes. Federal nonviolent inmates have only marginally less criminal backgrounds than their state counterparts: 79 percent have prior records, averaging more than six arrests and two convictions. The notion that our prisons are filled with nonviolent, first-time offenders is simply not true.

Tough sentencing makes Americans safer by locking up repeat and violent offenders. The nation's crime rate is at a 30-year low, with the result that 35 million Americans have been spared the suffering of criminal victimization in the last decade. If 1993 crime rates had continued unabated, at least 300,000 additional women would have suffered rape or sexual assault in 2003 alone.

We agree that there should be a healthy debate about sentencing, but we insist that this requires equipping Congress and the American people with the facts, not misleading rhetoric.

-- Dan Bryant


The writer is assistant attorney general for legal policy at the Justice Department.

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