The nation’s decades long war on drugs and ‘tough on crime’ posture has failed to reduce crime rates and control the rising prison population. Additionally, our current crime fighting strategy puts us at a disadvantage in other critical sectors, namely education. Knowing what we now know, it is clear that it’s beyond time to take a different approach on crime…a smarter one.
According to a recently released NAACP report entitled “Misplaced Priorities: Over Incarcerate and Under Educate,” state spending on prisons in the last 20 years grew six times faster than education spending. In fact, 33 states increased prison spending in 2009 while simultaneously reducing education funding.
Much of this increase in prison spending can be blamed on mandatory sentencing laws that require mandatory jail time for even low-level, non-violent offenses, robbing the sentencing judge of the ability to hand down a punishment that is more suitable to the crime. Instead, offenders who might be better served in a drug rehab program are sent to prison, causing prison populations to go up and requiring prison budgets to increase in order to keep up with the “demand.”
As states around the country are forced to make tough cuts to balance their budgets, very few are pulling funds from those allocated for prisons. Instead, they are pulling money from education, healthcare and social services programs that serve those in need. This is definitely not the right approach.
Reducing the prison population and, in turn, reducing prison budgets, stabilizes state budgets so that other key programs won’t have to take such hard hits. Restoring the judge’s ability to use creative sentencing for non-violent offenders is one way to reduce prison populations around the country. Employing alternative sentencing methods, such as home confinement and drug treatment, is another.
Our priorities as a nation are currently skewed…we are placing far more emphasis on incarcerating people than we are on educating and healing them. By taking a smarter approach to crime, one that looks for lower cost ways to punish and rehabilitate offenders, we can free up billions of dollars that can be put to much better use.
(Judge Greg Mathis is vice president of RainbowPUSH and a national board member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.)