“Tough on Crime” Is Tough on Budgets: Ten Ideas to Improve Our Justice System
co-authored with Mark Cooke, ACLU-WA Drug Policy Advocate
The human toll caused by our state’s addiction to being “tough on crime” was made painfully obvious ina recent story in the Seattle Times. The article explains that about 150 inmates every week start serving their prison sentences at the Corrections Center in Shelton. Writes reporter Jennifer Sullivan: “Most are destined to spend their first days in prison as ‘rugs,’ the term used by inmates and corrections officers to describe offenders who have to sleep on the concrete floor of cells because of overcrowding. The newcomers bed down on thin rubber mats spread out between the cell's toilet and sink – just feet from two occupied bunks.”
And the worst is yet to come. The article notes that our state is expected to need 900 new prison beds by 2016. But it lacks the money to build them because of the severe budget crisis. Even with significant efforts to reduce expenses, the state spends about $90 a day on each inmate. And the cost to our humanity every day that more young men become “rugs” is incalculable.
Isn’t it time to stop this approach to criminal justice? Don’t we have better things to spend the money on?
Inspired by David Letterman, here is our list of 10 Ideas for saving money by putting fewer people in prisons and jails, and being “smart” on criminal justice instead of simply being punitive.
1) Legalize, tax, and regulate marijuana for adult use and eliminate thousands of arrests and unnecessary incarcerations every year. Which is just what the ACLU-supported I-502 would do.
2) Reform the Three Strikes law by reducing the number of crimes that are “strikes” and giving offenders a way to earn a reduced sentence based on rehabilitation, instead of confinement until they die. “Three Strikes” may sound like a good slogan, but it’s bad policy to keep people locked up when they get older and are highly unlikely to commit crimes.
3) Fund gang prevention and intervention rather than broaden the net to snare gang-vulnerable youth into the criminal justice system.
4) Eliminate the crime of Driving While License Suspended Third Degree. We don’t need to put people behind bars after their license was suspended for failure to pay tickets. This year’s passage of SB 6284 is a great start.
5) End the imposition of non-restitution Legal Financial Obligations (LFOs). These court-imposed financial sanctions create a debtor’s prison cycle for impoverished individuals and their families.
6) End the death penalty. While Washington’s death row is much smaller than that of some states, the cost of pursuing capital cases puts a great strain on criminal justice budgets. For a single death penalty trial in Washington, taxpayers pay nearly $800,000 in additional costs beyond what is spent on a non-death penalty trial for aggravated murder. The ACLU-WA is involved with the Safe and Just Alternatives Campaign in working to replace the death penalty with a sentence of life in prison without parole.
7) Provide local governments and law enforcement agencies with incentives to use alternatives to incarceration.
8) Improve the system so that mentally ill suspects and offenders aren't needlessly thrown in prison rather than receiving treatment.
9) Reduce barriers in employment and housing faced by individuals with a criminal records and fund re-entry programs for people who are no longer incarcerated. Making it difficult for individuals to find stable employment and housing makes it more likely that some will revert to criminal activities and end up back in jail.
10) Collect better data and require periodic analysis of whether a criminal law is having its intended effect of protecting public safety in a cost-effective manner; and require this kind of evaluation for every new crime being considered by the Legislature.