States pull back on get-tough crime laws

Associated Press | 4/8/2009, 4:52 a.m.

NEW YORK — For the last four decades, the laws of the land were all about cracking down on crime by locking away criminals for a very long time.

Some carried scary names like “Three Strikes and You’re Out” — as in cast out of society. The harshest penalties for drug offenders, the notorious so-called “Rockefeller laws,” were named after a New York governor battling a 1970s heroin epidemic.

Nearly half the country and the federal government adopted some kind of strict laws, while “get tough on crime” became the mantra of politicians running for everything from the local city council to the president of the United States.

The public, too, was enamored. The laws promised to make life safer in increasingly unsafe times by putting away bad guys and hiding the keys for years — no more slaps on the wrist, no matter if the ultimate offense was having drugs in your pocket or stealing golf clubs.

But after cracking down and incarcerating hundreds of thousands, cash-strapped states including New York, Kentucky and Kansas are pulling back. Facing an uncommon confluence of dire economics and prisons bursting at the seams, several have changed, in whole or in part, their stances on hard punishment.

Their reasons are many. The get-tough laws didn’t always work, especially when it came to slowing recidivism, the revolving door of prisoners who get out, mess up again, and come back. There were legal challenges, and questions about whether the punishment always fit the crime.

And of course, there’s the money. In tough economic times, the expensive laws are increasingly being deemed expendable.

Late last month, New York reached an agreement to repeal the last vestiges of the Rockefeller drug laws, once considered the harshest in the U.S.

It’s expected to save some $250 million per year — New York spends about $45,000 annually per inmate, while treatment costs are estimated at $15,000 or less — at a time when the state is grappling with a projected budget hole of $17.7 billion.

Passed in 1973, the laws were named after Republican Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller, who insisted strict sentencing was the way to wipe out soaring street crime and heroin use.

The penalties were severe. Judges were generally required to impose minimum sentences of 15 years to life for those convicted of selling two ounces (56 grams) or possessing four ounces of narcotics — the same punishment handed out for second-degree murder.

The laws soon became highly controversial, with opponents claiming they were draconian and locked up low-level offenders who would have better benefited from drug treatment. After the new rules took effect, narcotic offenders surged from 11 percent of the state prison population to a high of 34 percent in 1994, according to state corrections numbers.

But many prosecutors and law enforcement agencies see good in those numbers, contending that more criminals in jail means lower crime rates in America. Though crime rates have plummeted across the country in the past decade or so, some legal advocates credit not harsh sentencing laws, but overall improvements in law enforcement practices like community policing, an economy that until recently had been strong, and declines in handgun use.