NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Get-Tough-On-Crime Laws

August 7, 2003

After growing steadily for two decades, the U.S. prison population is leveling off, and some say that get-tough mandatory-minimum sentences are to thank. However, some states, strapped for cash, are starting to reform their sentencing laws for drug offenders and nonviolent criminals in order to save space for truly dangerous felons.

Although critics say that releasing nonviolent criminals will boost crime, proponents of the reforms point to several successes:

  • Michigan eliminated minimum sentences, including lifetime parole for minor drug possession, and expects to save $41 million a year.
  • A law in Washington reduced sentences for minor drug offenses and will save the state $8 million annually, some of which will pay for drug-treatment programs.
  • One-fourth of prisoners are drug offenders, and most have not committed violent crimes; handing them 50- to 200-year sentences does little to reduce crime rates.
  • Several studies show that "three-strike" laws significantly reduce crime.
  • Stiffer penalties for repeat criminals are also justified because there is less doubt that the offender is really guilty.
  • Sentencing reforms make it difficult for judges to equalize total penalties among criminals who commit the same crime.

If sentencing reformers get their way, says Lott, we can expect higher violent crime rates.

Source: Editorial, "Easing Mandatory Sentences Requires Sound Solutions," and John Lott, "States may regret reforms," both USA Today, June 30, 2003.

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