Sentencing Reform: A Deal For The Criminals — But What About Their Victims?

Members of Congress are upset that we have too many criminals in federal prison.  Prisons cost the taxpayers too much, they claim, and incarceration disrupts the criminals’ family lives. They decry the unfair mass incarceration of “low level” offenders, and tell us that the system is racist because a disproportionate number of minorities are in prison.  Let them out, they claim, and try to “rehabilitate” them while they roam the streets once again.

The result:  a nice deal for the criminals, and it might reduce the budget of the US Bureau of Prisons by a percent or two. But with what cost to the vicitms?

Crime policy, according to the late James Q. Wilson – one of the most respected and admired criminologists of the last half century – “should pay more attention to the interest of the law abiding than the needs of the offender.”  But clearly, in the eyes of the current Sentencing Reform Acts proponents, the interests of the victims are completely ignored.   

Professor Wilson also made it clear that most people, even those who live in crime-infested neighborhoods, don’t commit crimes; they are the victims. Most criminals, particularly those who have found their way into federal prison, commit lots of crime.  It is estimated that for every arrest, the sort of people in federal prison commit twelve or more crimes. 

Virtually all of those in federal prison have been arrested many times.

The Sentencing Reform Act, now pending in Congress – a bill that Democrats and too many Republicans are itching to pass – would release, before sentences had been fully served, upwards of 10,000 serious drug traffickers convicted under mandatory minimum laws and incarcerated for 15 or more years.  These criminals are not minor drug users. They are chronic traffickers who, according to the National Narcotic Officers Association, “help to finance the gangs and cartels whose business model depends on creating and nurturing drug addiction, terrorizing our communities with violence and intimidating tactics.” 

Neither are they one-time offenders.  Drug traffickers are professional criminals who make their living in a life of crime, and who commit felonies again and again.  They only warranted federal prosecution because they were chronic, multiple offenders. Although they may have been convicted of trafficking, a majority, according to FBI statistics, have also committed murders, rapes, robberies, aggravated assaults, burglaries, thefts, auto thefts, and arson.

When these prisoners are released, there is better than a 75 percent chance that they will be arrested again (not to mention those 12 other crimes committed with no arrest). Very simply, they traffic in drugs because it is what they know how to do, and because it is extremely lucrative – there is nothing else they can do to return to the lifestyle they knew before prison.  It is a determination based on risk:  they will weigh the gains they can make by dealing in drugs versus the losses they incur if they get caught.  Time in prison is just part of the cost of doing business.

Appearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Professor Matt DeLisi of Iowa State University testified that release of just one percent of the current federal prison population would result in over 32,000 additional felonies.  There are now about 200,000 federal inmates,  so DeLisi is talking about release of only 2,000, just one fifth as many as the current legislation would set free.

And who are the victims?  Many will be poor, many will be minorities.  FBI statistics tell us that blacks are eight times as likely to be murder victims as whites, and much more likely to be assaulted, raped, robbed and the rest.  In the midst of the worst drug addiction crisis in our history, the victims will also be young people who, because addiction is supply-driven, will experiment with drugs and become addicted themselves.

For the victims, crime is not cheap.  The value of items stolen, of fixing a car window or replacing the car itself, medical expenses, lost income and whatever else it takes to make the victim whole can run into tens, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars for each offense.  The greater costs are the psychological cost to the victim and the cost to society generally, which cannot properly be computed.

If the Sentencing Acts’ backers were doing their job, they would listen to the victims as well as the offenders.


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