No politician ever got into trouble for wanting to build more jail cells or enacting tougher criminal punishments. Few prosecutors ever were punished for seeking a maximum sentence, nor judges for throwing the book at a defendant.
Locking up convicts — the longer the better — has been seen as a sure way to promote political careers, protect job security and pacify communities fearful of crime.
That may be changing. A new kind of “truth in sentencing” movement is underway. It is based on the premise that it isn’t how long a criminal defendant spends behind bars that’s important, but whether the community is safer if he’s put in prison.
There’s mounting evidence that being “tough on crime” — especially regarding non-violent offenders — actually makes communities less safe.
Missouri Supreme Court Judge Michael Wolff, who chairs the state Sentencing Advisory Commission, is a leading evangelist for what he calls “evidence-based sentencing.” That’s when judges use hard data on a criminal convict’s risk of reoffending as a key element in the decision whether to mete out jail time.
In a speech last year at New York University Law School’s Brennan Center of Justice, Mr. Wolff noted that 50 percent of inmates in Missouri prisons are non-violent offenders. Working with researchers at the Missouri Department of Corrections and the Department of Probation and Parole, he collected data on offenders convicted of non-violent felony theft.
The data show that 45 percent of those sent to jail or prison — even for as little as 120 days — reoffend. But only 19.1 percent of those sentenced to probation or community service commit additional crimes.
“There is a strong case to be made that the large increase in prison population has made us less safe,” Mr. Wolff said. “If we put non-violent offenders in prison with violent offenders, the non-violent do seem to learn from the violent.”
If the public thinks “rationally about what’s in our own best interests — i.e. public safety,” he added, we should “pay particular attention to which sentences work to reduce recidivism.”
Progressive judges and corrections officials aren’t the only ones taking notice. Grass-roots community groups, religious service organizations and a growing number of civic-minded lawyers have become involved in the movement that diverts non-violent offenders from the conventional justice system, often soon after they are charged.
The concept is called “restorative justice” and it gives offenders a chance to face the community directly — and especially their victims — to accept responsibility for their actions and make amends.
In Springfield, Mo., Greene County Prosecutor Darryl Moore, a longtime prosecutor with a no-nonsense reputation, has built a restorative justice program for non-violent adult offenders — in both misdemeanor and felony cases.
Mr. Moore is convinced such programs make offenders “more accountable” and, above all, that they give victims “a greater satisfaction.” He’s working state lawmakers on legislation that confirms the authority of prosecutors statewide to engage in restorative justice and that protects community groups that participate.
As if keeping the public safer wasn’t reason enough to explore these programs, an added bonus is that restorative justice programs cost less than locking up a person in prison. The inconvenient truth in sentencing is that the public may be safer when non-violent offenders are kept out of prisons.