Wednesday, October 3, 2012

A Different Kind of Mandatory Sentencing

The numerous mandatory sentencing laws, under which judges have no flexibility in sentencing defendants, have caused the prison population in the US to balloon to seven times what it was in 1980, so that now the US imprisons its citizens at a higher rate than every other country in the world. Judges hate these mandatory sentencing laws, because it ties their hands, and a fair number of judges have resigned in protest at the injustices they are required to perpetrate. A common example is the girlfriend of a drug dealer, who gets decades in prison along with her boyfriend, even though her involvement in his criminal enterprise was minimal, or tangential, or perhaps even coerced.

One problem mandatory sentencing has caused is the  high cost of this ridiculous level of incarceration. In California it is estimated that it costs $70,000 a year to incarcerate an inmate. The Ohio legislature has taken a novel approach to reducing the runaway cost of all this incarceration. A year ago a new law was enacted which *prohibits* judges from sentencing first-time offenders to prison, when the offense is a low-level felony. As a result, the prison population has already shrunk to the 2007 level.

I sometimes think that whenever a judge sentences a defendant to prison, that judge should be required to give a statement setting out the projected cost to the state of the incarceration. It seems absurd for judges to be able to incur, on behalf of the state, these tremendous costs, with no accountability or consequence. When a judge runs for re-election, the burden his sentencing decisions have placed on the state could then be part of the public record, just like all other government financial information already is public record. Maybe then this "tough on crime" mantra that we constantly hear from candidates could properly be interpreted as "tough on taxpayers' pocketbooks".

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