“Tough on crime” talk might sounds good to legislators who like surefire-sounding answers that sell well to a crime-weary public. Three strikes and you’re out. Lock ‘em up and throw away the key. Build more jails.
But even some of the nation’s more conservative states are learning that being “smart on crime” means more than just locking up anyone who runs afoul of the law.
Our prisons are overcrowded in part because of mandatory sentencing laws for nonviolent crimes – strike three and you’re out, even for a minor offense. The approach casts too wide a net, catching little fishes that don’t belong with killer sharks. In addition, we treat substance abuse and mental illness as a crime, instead of an illness that needs treatment, not jail.
A growing reform movement in states including Texas, Ohio and South Carolina is helping to cut both crime and prison costs. By doing away with or adding flexibility to mandatory sentencing laws for non-violent crimes, and offering treatment as an alternative to jail to substance abusers and the mentally ill, these states are moving beyond the costly policy failure of warehousing non-violent offenders. Such reforms are making for a smarter criminal justice system.
Gov. Deval Patrick tried to make this point to state lawmakers in the recent debate over the Massachusetts habitual offender law. Last January, in his State of the State address, the governor said 84 people had been convicted and sentenced under the state’s habitual offender law over the past 10 years for committing three felonies — not necessarily adequate proof of a demonstrated threat to society.
The point was lost on lawmakers, who sent Patrick a bill that lacked judicial discretion in sentencing habitual offenders. Patrick urged the Legislature to add a “safety valve” so that habitual offenders in certain cases might be able to avoid serving the maximum sentence without parole.
Patrick also called for a comprehensive reentry strategy to provide more education, job training and drug treatment to better prepare inmates to re-enter society. Right now, only a tiny percentage of our state corrections budget is spent on job training and rehabilitation.
In the end, however, emotion won over reason.
Cheered on by police associations and victims’ rights groups, the Legislature refused to go along with Patrick’s proposed changes to the bill.
So three strikes and you’re out it is – for now. Patrick wants to return in the next legislative session to continue working on what he calls “the balance between strict sentences for the worst offenders and more common-sense approaches for those who pose little threat to public safety.”