After two decades of passing ever tougher sentencing laws and prompting a prison building boom, state legislatures facing budget crises are beginning to rethink their costly approaches to crime.
In the past year, about 25 states have passed laws eliminating some of the lengthy mandatory minimum sentences so popular in the 1980’s and 1990’s, restoring early release for parole and offering treatment instead of incarceration for some drug offenders. In the process, politicians across the political spectrum say they are discovering a new motto. Instead of being tough on crime, it is more effective to be smart on crime.
In Washington, the first state in the country to pass a stringent “three strikes” law by popular initiative a decade ago, a bipartisan group of legislators passed several laws this year reversing some of their more punitive statutes.
One law shortened sentences for drug offenders and set up money for drug treatment. Another increased the time inmates convicted of drug and property crimes could earn to get out of prison early. Another eliminated parole supervision for low-risk inmates after their release.
Taken together, these laws “represent a real turning point,” said Joseph Lehman, the secretary of the Washington Department of Corrections, who was a major supporter of the legislative changes. “You have to look at the people who are behind these laws,” Mr. Lehman said. “They are not all advocates of a liberal philosophy.
Even aside from the issue of whether we should decriminalize narcotics, it seems quite clear that imprisoning mere users is an expensive and counterproductive public policy.