Monday, May 5, 1997

Week of 05/05/1997

Truth in Sentencing
Trying to Fix the Criminal Justice System
- by David Matthews 2

This past week, Georgia residents were shocked to learn that a man who was given a life sentence for killing a police officer was released after only serving six years. I’ve heard life is short, but I never expected anyone in their right mind to think life being only six years!

Six years! The term of a US Senator! The life span of a popular TV sitcom, and seven times the life span of an unpopular TV sitcom.

Well guess what folks, if the vast populace ever realized just how sentencing guidelines work for the prisoners, there’d be riots in the streets!

For starters early release and parole are automatically factored into every prisoner’s sentence, unless their sentence doesn’t warrant parole. Yes, they are automatically guaranteed early release for good behavior before even serving one night in prison! And suppose the prisons get a bit overcrowded, does the state ask for another prison? No, all they have to do is factor in yet another early release for each prisoner!

A few years back, public outrage about Florida’s early release programs prompted a special legislative session to address the problem. Everything about the correctional system was opened up for the legislators to think about and try to resolve. So what happened at the end of this special session? The state legislators authorized yet another early release program for each inmate - the very thing that brought them into this special session to begin with!

Let’s get brutally honest here folks, part of the problem with the criminal justice system is that there is no continuity to it at all! A judge berates someone for a heinous act and gives them twenty years, then the correctional system turns around and gives a different sentence. The very concept of justice is bastardized in between when the person is sentenced and when they get to the prison.

That said, here are some suggestions I think would help restore some semblance of order and respect for the criminal justice system:

Truth in sentencing. Judges make the sentences. If the correctional authorities feel that the sentence is too harsh - tough! That’s not their job! If the judge says twenty years, then expect to be there for twenty years. If the judge says life, then the only way that person should leave prison is by a hearse! If the correctional authorities have a problem with it, they should take it up with their legislators like the rest of us, not try to subvert the decision of the judiciary.

Continuity in sentencing. No more variable sentences. No more "five to fifteen years" garbage. Pick a number and stick with it! And while we’re at it, let’s make the sentencing uniform. There’s no difference in punishment between underage possession of beer and underage possession of hard liquor, so why should there be a disparity between powder cocaine and crack cocaine? If both are equally "dangerous" as officials keep claiming, then start giving equal sentences!

Return parole and good behavior to their original purposes! Both were meant as rewards for exceptional behavior, not automatic guarantees to each and every inmate the minute they get inducted into the correctional system. If parole was run the way it was meant to, then parole officers wouldn’t be overburdened and they could do their jobs! And if we can’t do that, then let’s be honest about it and get rid of these services instead of holding onto them like political entitlements!

Stop criminalizing victimless crimes! It’s enough a problem having to deal with real criminals, then to have to also incarcerate people who’s only offense is breaking someone else’s morals! Let’s concentrate on putting the REAL criminals behind bars, not the people who think life is something beyond some neo-puritan Stepford utopia hatched by social paranoids and geriatrics who have one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel.

And finally, let’s put our money where our mouth is when it comes to building more prisons! Unless we want to start housing our inmates in Antarctica or the moon, we had better come to the realization that when we demand more prisons be built, they’ll have to be built in SOMEBODY’S back yard! If you want more prisons, be at least willing to have one in your back yard!

Look, I’m not expecting these suggestions be easy to swallow, but if we’re going to be serious about crime and serious about the criminal justice system, let’s stop posturing to the cameras and start trying to fix it!

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