Friday, August 23, 2013

The Cautionary Instruction: A watershed moment in the criminal justice system

Matthew T. Mangino
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/Ipso Facto
August 23, 2013

A number of states and now the federal government have made a seismic shift in crime and punishment policy. Specifically, policymakers are looking for ways to incarcerate fewer people for shorter periods of time.

Here is what some commentators and practitioners think about this watershed moment in America’s criminal justice system.

Tavis Smiley, is host of the “Tavis Smiley” show on PBS:

I would like to believe that it's about a shift in our morals; that our nation has finally come to the conclusion that being the world's leader on lockdowns is neither socially sustainable nor a just way to treat fellow citizens. But, alas, I'm not that naive.
It's about money. Pure and simple. As a nation, we have a habit every bit as addictive as the habits of many of the folk we've locked away. We've been addicted to the drug of incarceration, and now we can no longer afford our expensive habit.
Professor Douglas Berman, Ohio State University Law School:

In recent years, with criminal justice expenditures accounting for an ever-larger portion of shrinking government budgets, Republican leaders at both the state and federal levels had begun championing reforms designed to reduce prison populations and their associated costs. A prominent new group, Right on Crime — which includes such GOP stalwarts as Jeb Bush, Newt Gingrich, Grover Norquist and Edwin Meese III.
The combination of relatively low crime rates, lean budgets, sequester cuts and overcrowded federal prisons presents a unique moment for the enactment of landmark criminal justice legislation, and the need for fundamental sentencing reform is one of the very few topics on which leading Democratic and Republican voices might be able to agree.
Prosecutor Henry Garza, president of the National District Attorneys’ Association:

Repeating the myth that prisons are full of first-time, non-violent offenders leaves America’s 40,000 prosecutors, who handle over 95 percent of the criminal prosecutions in this country, shaking their collective heads. The reality is that almost every offender, in every state prison, is there for a violent offense or sexual offense, or for committing repeated offenses.”
Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II:

There is an expectation that the generic Republican position is tough on crime, but even that has budget limits, particularly on the prison side.
Professor Rory Little, Hasting College of Law:

It's largely economics. Why did it take so long? The federal government is a lot slower than states. And it has never before been politically possible to act in a direction viewed as "pro-criminal." But now, many many states…recognize that the costs of over-incarceration are too high.

Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George, P.C. He is the former district attorney of Lawrence County and just completed a six year term on the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole. His weekly column on crime and punishment is syndicated by GateHouse New Service. You can read his musings on the criminal justice system at and follow Matt on Twitter @MatthewTMangino.

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