Tom Cotton on Sentencing Reform: ‘Impossible’ to Slash Sentences Without Increasing Crime

at the State prison Thursday, March 3, 2011 in Jackson. Conservative legislators who championed strict three-strikes laws and other tough crackdowns that led to bloated prisons are now considering what was once deemed unthinkable: Reducing sentences for some drug and nonviolent offenders and releasing some felons early from prison. (AP …
David Goldman/AP

Arkansas Republican Sen. Tom Cotton declared Thursday it is “impossible” to reduce sentences for drug dealers and violent felons without seeing crime rise—a “trade-off” he charged that advocates of federal prison sentencing reductions largely ignore.

Only a tiny fraction of convicts housed in federal prison are there on drug possession charges, he said, adding the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act (SRCA) would free many more violent felons as the prison population continues to rapidly decline.

“Releasing a flood of these violent felons into our streets would surrender the hard-won gains of the last generation,” Cotton said at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C. “That generation started with short sentences and soft-on-crime judges. In the last crime wave, judges had vast discretion in sentencing. This meant that drug dealers often returned to the streets just days after arrest.” He continued:

[T]he cost of doing business for criminals needed to go up. Two main factors affecting the cost-benefit calculus of criminals are the severity and certainty of a sentence. Increasing both in the 1980s contributed significantly to the massive drop in crime—as much as 35 percent of the drop according to some studies. The truth is you cannot decrease the severity and certainty of sentences without increasing crime. It’s simply impossible. The bill’s sponsors rarely speak of this trade-off.

“They don’t answer the concrete questions that matter to citizens, families, and communities: How many more crimes will be committed because of sentencing reductions? How many more lives lost? How many lives ruined and communities at risk? Let me tell you, with a recidivism rate of 77 percent for released felons, the answer is a lot, no matter how much we improve rehabilitation programs,” he said.

SRCA’s other notable opponents, such as former federal prosecutor Bill Otis, have made similar points. “[Sentencing reduction supporters] say, look! If we empty out these prison beds, see how much money we’ll save. But what they’re not seeing is because of that short-sightedness, the money they’ll actually never get saved,” Otis told SiriusXM host Stephen K. Bannon.  “First, it will be spent on  different programs. It will be spent on rehabilitation programs. Re-entry programs. On programs that now have the Obama administration saying, well, we’re not going to call people felons anymore… [C]osts will simply be shifted to the additional criminals we know we’re going to get when these people go back to recidivism, as they do in huge numbers.”


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