Sentencing Panel Mulls Alternatives to Prison

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.

Howell said maintaining a prison population equal to the size of a major U.S. city "is inconsistent with what Congress had in mind with the Sentencing Reform Act" of 1984, which created the commission.

"Our purpose is not just to issue guidelines setting forth the severity of punishment, but to provide guidelines to judges for the form of that punishment," Howell said. "The commission has spent most of its time on the severity. It is somewhat new for us to look at the form of the punishment, and that's where alternatives come in."

The commission's consideration of alternatives comes the year after it defied the Bush administration by relaxing tough sentencing guidelines for crack cocaine offenders and making its decision retroactive, so that thousands already in prison could seek release before the end of their terms. About 4,000 mostly nonviolent offenders have taken advantage of the policy so far, according to members of the commission and the federal Bureau of Prisons.

The Justice Department, U.S. attorneys and the National District Attorneys Association strongly opposed easing the guidelines for crack cocaine offenders and making them retroactive. But the reaction to possible prison alternatives has not been as pronounced.

"My experience tells me that if the drug court is properly constituted and has the buy-in of judges, prosecutors and parole officials, they are very effective," said Tom Sneddon, interim executive director of the district attorneys group and a former Santa Barbara, Calif., prosecutor who helped establish a drug court there.

"But there are some courts that are shadow programs that they use to cycle people back into society and not send them to prison, and have no real substance at all," Sneddon said.

Another program under consideration would allow judges to develop rehabilitation programs for parolees based on their needs -- such as employment, education or drug treatment. Parolees could join the program upon their release from prison or after committing a minor parole violation, such as failing to update an address or a telephone number.

Texas criminal district court Judge John Creuzot said drug courts have worked in his state. He said he established a program after Texas got tough on minor drug offenders, jailing them for two years.

"Well, that thing started to break down by the late 1990s," he said, ". . . because then we had so many people in penitentiaries that we were actually letting murderers and rapists out to make room for these small violators, low-risk violators. And so we started rethinking what we were doing."

The 18-month program accepts low-level drug offenders with no felony records or histories of violence. "We did a study of that program, and we have a 68 percent reduction of recidivism in that program," Creuzot said. "It's a phenomenally successful program."

For parolees, job training is seen as the chief remedy to repeated incarceration, said Judge Robert Holmes Bell, chief U.S. district judge for the Western District of Michigan. "In the old days, the warden of the prison used to give the person a bus ticket and $20 and say, 'Godspeed to you,' and away they went."

The Sentencing Commission's staff is drafting a proposal amending its guidelines that the panel could submit for public comment in late December. The commission could make a final decision by May 1. Congress would then have 180 days to reverse the decision.

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