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July 9, 2004 - The Charlotte Observer (NC)

Let's Get Smart About Crime

Twenty Expensive Years Of Getting Tougher Hasn't Made America Safer

By Dennis W. Archer, Detroit lawyer, former Michigan Supreme Court justice and president of the American Bar Association

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

After spending billions of dollars locking up more and more people for a broader range of crimes and longer periods of time than ever before, many of the states that pioneered our nation's "tough on crime" movement are looking for alternatives.

Why? Because the old way has cost too much and done too little to make our communities safer. In short, they realize that it isn't enough just to be tough on crime; they also need to be smart on crime.

It's not enough to lock people up and throw away the key. To really make our communities safer, we also need to look at the other side of the coin: what happens after sentencing.

Roughly 95 percent of the 2.1 million Americans in prison today will eventually get out. If we invest resources while they are incarcerated in helping them prepare to reenter society -- providing job training and treatment for substance abuse, for example -- we make our communities safer by reducing the chance that ex-prisoners will return to a life of crime. Because we don't do enough of this today, about one-third of the people released from prison commit new crimes and eventually go back.

It's in all our interests, both in terms of economics and community safety, to help them stay away from crime.

We also need to remove unnecessary legal barriers that prevent released inmates from becoming productive members of society. Right now, the deck is permanently stacked against many of them by a web of state and federal laws that blocks their path to redemption.

Take, for example, a college student convicted of felony marijuana possession, or a young cocaine addict convicted of stealing to feed his addiction. After they complete their sentences, federal law permanently bars them from receiving federal student loans, public housing or public assistance.

For too many, additional sanctions like these act as a permanent barrier on the road away from their pasts. State legislatures and Congress need to remove those so-called collateral sanctions that unnecessarily prevent people from getting their feet on the ground.

Congress also needs to do away with mandatory minimum sentences, which too often are tough on the wrong people. While we all can agree that similar crimes should generally result in similar sentences, the idea that Congress can dictate a one-size-fits-all sentencing scheme does not make sense.

Judges need the discretion to weigh the specifics of the cases before them and determine an appropriate sentence. There's a reason we give judges a gavel, not a rubber stamp.

Most troubling, however, is the fact that minorities are hit hardest by these and other problems in our justice system. More than 60 percent of the people behind bars in America are people of color. Statistically, African American males born today have a 1 in 3 chance of being incarcerated sometime during his lifetime, compared to a 1 in 6 chance for Latino males and a 1 in 17 chance for white males. We cannot ignore this disparity.

Let me be clear about one thing. These are not your typical criminal-coddling recommendations from out of touch advocacy groups. They are the product of hardheaded, realistic assessment of the problems in our criminal justice system. Put simply, our current approach to crime and punishment is not working. It locks up too many of the wrong people, has a disproportionate impact on minorities and fails to make our communities safer because it poorly prepares prisoners to reenter society upon release.

The need for reform is clear. We've spent more than 20 years getting tougher on crime. Now we need to get smarter.

For The Record offers commentaries from various sources. The views are the writer's, and not necessarily those of the Observer editorial board.

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