Sentencing Panel Mulls Alternatives to Prison

The U.S. Sentencing Commission is considering endorsing options including treatment programs for nonviolent users of drugs such as crack.
The U.S. Sentencing Commission is considering endorsing options including treatment programs for nonviolent users of drugs such as crack. (By Damian Dovarganes -- Associated Press)
By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 12, 2008

As the nation's inmate population climbs toward 2.5 million, the U.S. Sentencing Commission is considering alternatives to prison for some offenders, including treatment programs for nonviolent drug users and employment training for minor parole violators.

The commission's consideration of alternatives to incarceration reflects its determination to persuade Congress to ease federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws that contributed to explosive growth in the prison population. The laws were enacted in the mid-1980s, principally to address a crime epidemic related to crack cocaine. But in recent years, federal judges, public defenders and probation officials have argued that mandatory sentences imprison first-time offenders unnecessarily and disproportionately affect minorities.

If the commission moves ahead with recommending alternatives to Congress, it would send a strong signal to state sentencing commissions and legislatures, and could pave the way for a major expansion of drug courts and adult developmental programs for parolees, advocates said.

"We are leading the world in incarcerating adults, and that's something Americans need to understand," said Beryl Howell, one of six members of the commission, which drafts federal sentencing guidelines and advises the House and Senate on prison policy. "People should be aware that every tough-on-crime act comes with a price. The average cost [of incarceration] across the country is $24,000 a year per inmate. . . . It's going up far faster than state budgets can keep up."

About 2,000 drug courts nationwide spend between $1,500 and $11,000 per offender, according to the National Drug Court Institute. Those scattered courts handle only a small fraction of the 1.5 million nonviolent drug offenders who are arrested and charged with a crime, said C. West Huddleston, chief executive of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals.

The courts operate under similar principles: At sentencing, a judge gives a nonviolent offender the option of going to prison or committing to a rigorous treatment program, where he or she submits to frequent tests and supervision. The aim is to reduce the 67 percent recidivism rate of addicted offenders.

The government has established a discretionary grant program, operated by the Bureau of Justice Assistance, which is distributing $13 million to drug court programs this year.

"Drug courts are the most successful strategy in terms of reducing crime, but they're tremendously underutilized," Huddleston said. "I think a Sentencing Commission recommendation to U.S. courts would create momentum. It'll wake up state legislatures. It's a conversation that should have been had years ago."

The commission held a symposium to discuss alternatives to incarceration in July after a study this year by the nonpartisan Pew Center on the States revealed that more than one in 100 American adults are in jail or prison. That study was followed by a Bureau of Justice Statistics report in June that showed that a record 7.2 million people are under supervision in the criminal justice system. The cost, about $45 billion a year, has forced states such as California to export inmates to private prisons as far away as Tennessee.

Jeffrey L. Sedgwick, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's office of justice programs, said the burgeoning prison population might be worth the cost. Research has shown that crime rates decline as the incarceration rate rises, he said. "In other words, as the number of people under correctional supervision goes up, crime goes down."

Sedgwick said the cost of housing prisoners should be weighed against other factors, such as the cost for victims of violent crimes to piece their lives back together. He said conservative estimates put the cost of violent crime at about $17 billion.

But the Justice Department is open to discussing options that might reduce prison overcrowding and costs, and is waiting to see what the commission recommends, Sedgwick said. "We're not necessarily going to oppose it out of hand, but we say be real careful, we recommend more study," he said.

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