The Price to Punish

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I was seated at the banquet next to Marvin Wolfgang.

We were attending a conference at the University of Pennsylvania on juvenile justice.   Many of the country’s top experts showed up, along with two journalists, Fox Butterfield of The New York Times and me, then the editorial page editor for the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette.

I don’t recall the names of most people there.  But Professor Wolfgang would have stood out in any such gathering.  And if you got to visit with him, you sure wouldn’t forget.  He’s still regarded one of the most influential criminologists of all time.

I was reminded of that evening in the mid-1990s by a recent news story in The Journal Gazette. It told about a hearing of state policy makers.  The panel took up the subject of the Indiana Department of Correction budget. Commissioner Ed Buss spoke.

He’s been watching his budget balloon every year.  By 2014, he projects that feeding and housing inmates will cost $675.2 million.  That would be up from the projected $667.4 million in 2012.

It’s not that the commissioner has been feeding inmates steak every day.  He’s already cut 1,000 staff jobs in recent years.  But the demands to house more and more prisoners grows every year – about 1,000 in fact.   Does Indiana  have more crime?   Not at all.  We don’t have less crime, either.

What’s happened is that over the past 20 years, as Commissioner Buss notes, the legislature has added 107 new crimes.  Further, lawmakers keep tacking on longer sentences to existing crimes.  We all know why:  Politicians want people to believe they’re getting “tough on crime.”

Of course, tough on crime isn’t the same thing as getting smart on crime.  Which brings me back to the eminent criminologist, Professor Wolfgang.

“Do longer sentences really reduce crime?”

My dinner companion smiled and shook his head.

“No,” he said.

Then he turned away from the salad to more fully answer my question.

“To the contrary.”

“The longer somebody is locked up, the more likely they’ll commit more crime when they’re released.”

I’d come across research to that effect before.  But so directly from the professor made it a more powerful conclusion than ever.

In his testimony the other day, Indiana’s DOC’s commissioner called for an overhaul of sentencing.  Yet he noted that it would take a lot of courage from lawmakers to move away from the draconian sentences now regularly being meted out.

We could cut the length of sentences.  We could put more inmates into community corrections, at a much lower cost than in prison.  (The state currently houses more than 3,000 nonviolent offenders who would pose no threat to their towns.)  We could give more time off the sentences for good behavior.

One state lawmaker at the hearing seemed to discount any of these changes ever happening  “It would take a lot of guts,” he pointed out, echoing the commissioner’s words.

But the changes would only take guts if legislators believe that longer sentences in prison reduce crime. Trouble with that belief is that for all these people locked up for longer periods,  crime hasn’t gone down.  In fact, in some categories, such as assault and property crimes, we’ve seen more crime.

What about acting on Professor Wolfgang’s research and the findings of other experts?   What if reducing time in prison for most felons actually reduced crime?   We don’t even have to  try a pilot program to test the proposition.  Shorter sentences work well for countries in Western Europe, which report far less crime than we do in this country.

I know Commissioner Buss worries about his budget and the cost of handing out longer sentences to more offenders.  Taking a page from the professor, I believe state leaders can rightly tell their constituents that they’ll support an overhaul of sentencing.  It won’t be just to save money .  It will protect the public safety.

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