States pull back on get-tough crime laws

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

Things changed little for the Rockefeller laws until 2004, when some of the harshest penalties were removed. Then, last year, critic David Paterson was sworn in as governor after fellow Democrat Eliot Spitzer resigned in the wake of a prostitution scandal. He made it immediately clear that he planned to get rid of what remained.

Paterson’s agreement with legislators gives judges — not prosecutors — sole discretion to order nonviolent addicts to treatment instead of jail and ends mandatory jail time for first-time offenses in which violence plays no part. It also expands treatment services and drug courts, and allows about 1,500 people already incarcerated to apply for resentencing.

“A huge percentage of these people can be treated,” said acting New York Supreme Court Justice Laura Safer Espinoza, who has spent more than a decade in a Bronx drug court. “They can become producers instead of drainers.”

In her court, nonviolent drug offenders who stay clean while working or attending school full time can have their sentences reduced or dismissed.

“We have a 55 to 60 percent success rate,” she said. “That is excellent for the kind of people we’re talking about.”

At least 16 other states in the past year have changed regulations.

Last month in Kentucky, where the prison budget is nearly half a billion dollars, Gov. Steve Beshear signed bills expected to save more than $16 million by allowing addicts to seek treatment instead of spending time in prison, as well as other incentives.

Kansas and New Jersey reduced the number of parolees who would have faced going back to prison for technical violations such as missing meetings with their parole officer, according to a recently released analysis by The Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C.-based research and reform advocacy group.

“The rapid rise in prison populations over the past two decades has now collided with the fiscal crisis,” said Marc Mauer, the project’s executive director.

The U.S. prison and jail population has reached an all-time high of more than 2.3 million, the report said, based on government figures.

By far, California has the most stringent “three strikes” laws. Unlike other states, it says third-time felons can be put away for life for last offenses including petty theft and shoplifting. A third-strike conviction carries a sentence of 25 years to life.

The state may be forced to release up to a third of its nearly 170,000 inmates because overcrowding and poor medical care are causing the deaths of about a prisoner per week, a three-judge federal panel said in a tentative ruling in February.

But the state appears unlikely to change its hard stance.

“California is going no place in terms of changing our laws,” said Barry Krisberg of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, located in the Bay Area. He has studied inmate populations as a state commission member.

“The politics have always been driven by liberals afraid of being viewed as soft on crime,” he said.

(Associated Press)