ABA President Stephen N. Zack last month urged House and Senate leaders of the Budget, Appropriations and Judiciary Committees to rethink the country’s approach to criminal justice and corrections spending and look toward less costly and more effective alternatives.
Zack told the legislators that the bipartisan successes in this area at the state level offer ideas for what can be done at the federal level.
One step is the broader use of proven alternatives to prison, especially for low-level and nonviolent offenders, he said. Since 1980, the federal prison population has increased by 700 percent to 210,000 as the spending has gone up 1,700 percent to $6 billion – an explosion caused significantly by increased incarceration of nonviolent drug offenders.
“The federal government wastes precious taxpayer dollars when it incarcerates nonviolent officers whose actions would be better addressed through alternatives that will hold them equally accountable at a substantially lower cost to taxpayers,” Zack wrote.
Successful bipartisan state level reforms include: requiring that drug possession offenders with less than a gram of drugs be sentenced to probation in Texas; expanding eligibility for community sentencing and increasing the use of parole for nonviolent offenders in Oklahoma; and removing mandatory minimums for first-time offenders in Mississippi.
Reforms being implemented in numerous states have led to the first overall decline in state prison populations since 1980, Zack said. He called on the congressional leaders to work with many legal, criminal justice, civil rights and faith-based organizations to enact the following reforms at the federal level that are designed to increase public safety while reducing the federal deficit:
expanding use of probation and expungement of criminal convictions for low-level offenders;
instituting a review process to accelerate supervised release eligibility;
making congressional reforms to crack cocaine sentencing retroactive;
enhancing early release program for elderly nonviolent offenders;
expanding time credits for good behavior; and
restoring proportionality to drug sentencing.
“Policy makers can replace unnecessary and excessive prison sentences with proven alternatives that hold people accountable while, at the same time, saving taxpayer dollars,” Zack concluded.