Wednesday, December 12, 2012

FAMM on Front Page of NYT!

FAMM and federal prisoner and FAMM supporter Stephanie George are featured on the front page of today's New York Times in this superb article about mass incarceration.

Stephanie George is serving life without parole for a nonviolent drug offense.  And she's not alone:  41,000 other LWOP-ers are in the U.S., including these four profiled by the Times.

Prison populations have exploded since the creation of mandatory minimum sentences in the 1980s, as this helpful graphic shows.  Bigger and bigger chunks of those populations aren't murderers or serial killers, but nonviolent drug offenders just like Stephanie.  And, as the article shows, everyone from social scientists to social conservatives is starting to recognize that locking up so many people is producing minimal gains in public safety, at maximum cost to taxpayers:
“We know that harsher punishments lead to less crime, but we also know that the millionth prisoner we lock up is a lot less dangerous to society than the first guy we lock up,” Dr. [Steven D.] Levitt said. “In the mid-1990s I concluded that the social benefits approximately equaled the costs of incarceration. Today, my guess is that the costs outweigh the benefits at the margins. I think we should be shrinking the prison population by at least one-third.”

Some social scientists argue that the incarceration rate is now so high that the net effect is “crimogenic”: creating more crime over the long term by harming the social fabric in communities and permanently damaging the economic prospects of prisoners as well as their families. Nationally, about one in 40 children have a parent in prison. Among black children, one in 15 have a parent in prison. ...

“It is unconscionable that we routinely sentence people like Stephanie George to die in our prisons,” said Mary Price, the general counsel of the advocacy group Families Against Mandatory Minimums. “The United States is nearly alone among the nations of the world in abandoning our obligation to rehabilitate such offenders.”
The utility of such sentences has been challenged repeatedly by criminologists and economists. Given that criminals are not known for meticulous long-term planning, how much more seriously do they take a life sentence versus 20 years, or 10 years versus 2 years?Studies have failed to find consistent evidence that the prospect of a longer sentence acts as a significantly greater deterrent than a shorter sentence.
Longer sentences undoubtedly keep criminals off the streets. But researchers question whether this incapacitation effect, as it is known, provides enough benefits to justify the costs, especially when drug dealers are involved. Locking up a rapist makes the streets safer by removing one predator, but locking up a low-level drug dealer creates a job opening that is quickly filled because so many candidates are available.
Conservatives are rightly seeing the futility of huge prison populations, too.  Groups like Right on Crime want smarter, more cost-effective solutions -- to lock up people we're scared of, instead of just those we're mad at.

The problem FAMM has highlighted for the last 20 years:  smarter, more effective alternatives aren't available when we force judges to send everyone to prison for specific amounts of time.  It's time to give judges discretion and flexibility to use less hard time and more money-saving, rehabilitation-inducing alternatives.  

All the greatest alternatives in the world are meaningless if incarceration is the only option for judges.