One-size-fits-all is a concept that never made sense to me. How can something like a T-shirt be a good match for everyone from a small child to a 300-pound NFL lineman? The answer is that it’s obviously not. It will be way too big for one extreme and way too small for the other.
If one-size-fits-all is an illogical way to manufacture something as insignificant as an article of clothing, how can we possibly justify it as a reasonable way to handle something as serious as sentencing criminal offenders?
But one-size-fits-all punishments for crime are being widely used across the nation, and they’ve driven up the size of our prisons at an enormous cost to taxpayers. These punishments are called mandatory minimums and they force judges to impose mandatory prison time on offenders whose criminal behavior often spans extremes as mismatched as the little kid and the NFL giant.
There is no question that violent and serious offenders like murderers, rapists, and child abusers need to be locked up for a very long time. They pose a real threat to society and deserve severe punishment for their crimes. But adopting the same approach through mandatory sentences for nonviolent offenders like small-time drug offenders is counterproductive as it often leads to exploding costs and less public safety. Research by the Pew Charitable Trusts and others is clear that for many offenders prison terms can be decreased without affecting recidivism or crime. The extra time is all cost and no benefit to public safety.
The sad reality is that many nonviolent offenders simply learn how to become better criminals in prison, instead of reforming their behavior so they can become productive members of society. Even when a prison is well run, the unfortunate truth of locking up so many people together is that it is a place for criminals to earn their advanced degrees in crime.
There are many less costly, more effective alternatives to prison for nonviolent offenders that will help prevent them from reoffending and ending up back in our prison system. We can save taxpayers money and cut crime across the country by using options we know work, like drug courts, which combine intensive supervision with drug treatment and frequent drug testing, instead of expensive prison beds.