Prison over-crowding is not just a moral issue! It is an economic issue! It is a political issue!
The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments yesterday in a case determining whether a court may modify a sentence when the U.S. Sentencing Commission has subsequently lowered the sentence range.
In Freeman v. United States [link to Supreme Court’s web site], the Court will determine whether a prisoner has the right to request a sentence reduction after pleading guilty. The defendant, William Freeman, pleaded guilty some years back to drug and firearms offenses and was sentenced to 106 months according to the Federal Guidelines, which were in place at the time. Since then, the U.S. Sentencing Commission has substantially lowered the sentence for these offenses. Does it make sense to reduce his sentence since the Commission has now determined that the lower sentence is more appropriate?
If Mr. Freeman had fought his case, and not plead guilty, then he would be legally eligible to petition for the adjustment. This is because the sentence would have been “imposed” upon him. But the Government is now arguing that, because he plead guilty, he accepted the sentence as it was imposed, rather than requiring the trial and a guilty “verdict” which was not voluntary. Thus, the Government is trying to impose a public policy which will punish those that plead guilty worse than those that force a full trial. This makes no sense.
We will see how the Supreme Court comes down on this issue, but it raises some very fundamental issues:
1) Why does the U.S. (the “freest” Nation in the world) lock up a greater percentage of its population than any other country?
A Justice Department report from 2007 shows that a record 7 million people–one in every 32 adults in the U.S.–was either behind bars, on probation or on parole at the end of 2005 (I have not looked up the more recent numbers, but it is getting worse rather than better.)
2) How do we change this statistic?
Yes, we need to lock up violent and dangerous people, but NO, we no not need to lock up addicts and petty criminals. With North Carolina’s 3 strike “habitual” felony rule we are headed for a crash in the North Carolina DOC system. Most of the over crowding is due to relatively minor drug offenses.
3) It looks like the budget crisis we are currently in may finally get North Carolina to rethink the “Value” of locking up so many people as opposed to its “Cost.”
So something good may come out of the current recession. Our legislators may get off the knee jerk reaction to always “be tough on crime” and start considering the cost to us tax payers of this dogma. We need Law enforcement! We need to keep our community safe! We need the best criminal Justice System in the world! BUT, we do not need to lock away so many people. We need to rethink our “structured” sentencing and the priorities that Law Enforcement and the Criminal Justice system currently hold.
As the Supreme Court deliberates on the issue of allowing one person a sentence reduction because the Federal Sentencing Commission has substantially lowered the sentence for the offenses, we need to rethink lowering and creating alternative to long prison sentences. And we also need to look for an effective way to have prisoners work will in prison, but that will be for a later discussion.