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One-Size: A Need for Prison Reform

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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.

Most importantly, mandatory minimums can have a terrible impact on families. When someone serves a sentence that is disproportionate to the crime, it creates financial and emotional strain on his or her family, often for decades at a time. Often, the family doesn’t fully recover from the pain and hardship of separation and economic stress, and society has to deal with yet another broken family. The sooner we can reintroduce nonviolent offenders into society after they have served a reasonable punishment, the better it will be for their families, who too often bear the collateral cost of incarceration.

As a signatory of Right on Crime, a national campaign for better criminal and juvenile justice policies, I join conservative leaders who are supporting reforms that restore judges with their discretion to consider factors like the role of the defendant in the crime and his criminal history when imposing sentences. This accomplishes two important goals: it helps focus expensive prison beds on those who deserve them the most, and it helps restore the separation of powers between the judicial and legislative branches of government as required by our constitution.

Americans should always ask whether we are getting the best possible results for the lowest possible cost out of any government service. When our corrections spending is sky high because we are locking up so many nonviolent offenders for such nonsensical amounts of time, I think the answer is clear.

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