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September 6, 2008 -- Wall Street Journal (US)

U.S. Sentencing Panel To Focus On Alternatives To Jail

By Gary Fields

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

WASHINGTON -- The panel that sets sentencing guidelines for federal courts plans to focus on developing alternatives to incarceration, setting up a possible clash with the Justice Department.

Exactly what the U.S. Sentencing Commission might recommend isn't clear. Possible models include bodies such as drug courts, which place offenders in treatment instead of prison. The panel's intention, which it mentioned in a filing in the Federal Register, could provide an impetus for cash-strapped states to follow suit.

Justice Department spokeswoman Laura Sweeney said the department is hopeful about the use of monitoring technologies and other strategies, but "we do not believe the use of alternatives should be expanded without further rigorous research showing their effectiveness in promoting public safety." The commission, created in 1984, is made up of seven presidential appointees who are confirmed by the Senate Judiciary Committee. The panel promulgates sentencing recommendations that become law automatically unless Congress votes to reject them.

More than two million people are in prison in the U.S., including more than 200,000 in the federal system, both record highs. Prisons are responsible for some of the largest increases in state spending. According to National Association of State Budget Officers, states spent $44 billion in tax revenue on corrections last year, compared with $10.6 billion in 1987. The commission and Congress have been inching toward such a move in recent years.

In 2007, a commission guideline eased sentences handed down to crack cocaine defendants; then, over the objections of the Justice Department, the commission made the change retroactive. Earlier this year, Congress passed the Second Chance Act, which focuses on helping prisoners successfully re-enter society. This summer, the commission hosted a two-day symposium on alternatives to prison.

"We're going to be looking at what might fit at the starting point, before somebody is sent to prison," said District Court Judge Ricardo Hinojosa, who is chairman of the commission. Mr. Hinojosa said the commission will likely proceed cautiously, with considerations of public safety being paramount.

Advocates for the idea say the panel's planned consideration is a significant step. "If the commissioners are creating materials and making recommendations to Congress that we should expand alternatives to incarceration in the federal system, that will have a big impact," said Kara Gotsch, advocacy director for the Sentencing Project, a Washington research and advocacy group for criminal-justice policy.

Mary Price, general counsel of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a Washington, D.C.-based sentencing advocacy group, said it became clear the commission was turning its attention this way when it hosted the symposium and brought in local, state and federal criminal-justice practitioners from across the country to talk about what they have been doing to ease prison overcrowding and cut correction expenses.

Michael Rushford, president of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, a California organization that focuses on crime victims, said the foundation thinks "alternatives are generally not a good idea and particularly for certain classes of criminals," such as felons and repeat offenders. Mr. Rushford said the criminal justice system tried to turn toward alternatives in the 1960s and "it took 30 years to dig our way out, and the morgues were full during that 30-year period. We don't need to repeat history to relearn this lesson."

Popular options discussed at the commission's symposium included drug courts now found in every state, which are used to divert drug offenders into treatment programs, community service and restitution centers. These centers allow low-risk offenders to live in residential settings while working to pay their fines and restitution, plus their room and board. Nationally, the political climate may be receptive to such a change.

There has been little discussion of crime on the campaign trail, a place where candidates once vied to appear tougher than their opponents. Recent congressional hearings have focused on the economic and social costs of the nation's drug policies and juvenile-detention system. That's a far cry from just three years ago, when at least one bill was introduced that would have beefed up mandatory minimum penalties for drug crimes.

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