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The Failure of a "Tough on Crime" Approach

19-Feb-2016

Recently, our blog explored the problems the Oklahoma County Jail--and, indeed, the state as a whole--faces as a result of a "tough on crime" approach to legislation. Taking a hard line against crime by doling out mandatory minimum sentences and long prison terms was intended to serve as a deterrent to crime. Instead, this type of sentencing has proven to be unnecessarily punitive. Rather than having fewer criminals, we are simply placing more and more people in Oklahoma jails and prisons. The state has one of the highest incarceration rates in the nation for men, and the highest in the nation for women.

Although Oklahoma's incarceration rates are notoriously high, particularly as a result of tough drug laws, the state is not alone in dealing with the ramifications of "tough on crime" laws--like mandatory minimums and three strikes legislation--that have led to overcrowded prisons.

A recent Huffington Post article cites a Pew Charitable Trusts poll that indicates American voters are sick and tired of a "tough on crime" approach that has led to federal prison overcrowding and a significant taxpayer burden in housing inmates who should not necessarily remain in prison.

The article says that the poll revealed "that large majorities of voters believe too many drug offenders are incarcerated; mandatory minimum sentences for a variety of crimes should be abolished; and that prisoners should be allowed to participate in jailhouse job-training or drug-treatment programs that could reduce sentences."

In the past, politicians were rewarded for such a stance--after all, locking away dangerous criminals would ensure public safety. But as the reality has played out, Americans are singing a different tune. According to the Pew report, voters are now seeing that zealous prosecution and sentencing led to prison populations that are "too large, too expensive, and too often incarcerating the wrong people."

Nearly half of the federal prison population is made up of drug offenders, and more than half of those surveyed in the Pew poll--61 percent--believe that the nation incarcerates too many drug offenders. 

The article states that, currently, drug couriers who transport controlled substances for distribution face a mandatory minimum of 10 years in prison. Fewer than 20 percent of respondents believe that a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence is appropriate for such a crime.

Certainly, the federal government is changing its tune in some of these situations. Attorney General Eric Holder called these mandatory minimums "draconian" and said the United States would no longer prosecute low-level drug offenders, leaving those cases to the states. President Obama, in his final months as President, is granting clemency to a large number of federal drug prisoners.

And this easing of sentencing policies is having a trickle-down effect. Oklahoma, in light of a budget failure and already overburdened Department of Corrections, is taking steps to ease sentencing and facilitate early parole.

It is about time.



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