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Sentencing And Crime Rates

One of the popular arguments you hear against eliminating harsh sentencing guidelines is that crime rates will go up. This argument both defies reality and misses the point. Imprisoning someone is an effective way to deter a wide range of conduct. A person in prison is deterred from making a living. A person in prison is deterred from being an effective parent or supportive spouse. A person in prison is deterred from contributing much of anything to society. What long prison sentences do not deter is similar crime committed by other people. Studies are very clear on that.

Even if crime rates were tied to sentencing in this way, it would not settle the matter. A person imprisoned for life for a traffic offense will never commit that offense again. Few people would argue that going 5 mph over the limit should result in a life behind bars. In this country, nonviolent offenders are subjected to shocking prison sentences. Criminal justice reform largely focuses on ending the mass incarceration of non-violent offenders as public policy. Beyond the massive expense of large-scale incarceration, it is simply not fair to put someone in prison for decades based on behavior that posed little harm. The nature of the crime must match the length of the sentence given. 

Critics of reform will work to prevent the current bipartisan support from crystallizing into effective legislation. One of the ways they will do so is by trying to scare the public into thinking that crime rates will skyrocket when nonviolent offenders are released. That should not matter. A person should be released after a reasonable sentence is served. For those convicted of nonviolent offenses, "reasonable" is often more than they can hope for.

Source: Cleveland Plain Dealer, "Some fear Obama's plan to reduce federal sentencing guidelines will increase crime rates," by Ray Jablonski, 19 July 2015

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