Tough-on crime approach under increasing scrutiny, criticism

Anyone who watches reruns of 1970s criminal law dramas on television can readily conjure up the prototypical portrayal of the American landscape that featured at the time: urban areas ridden with social instability, drug dealers openly plying their wares on street corners and, most frighteningly, violent criminals freely roaming the streets because the criminal justice system was simply too lenient in dealing with them.

The perceived reality at that time, coupled with a rising clamor of voices — including legislators from across the country, law enforcement departments, prosecutors and media pundits — resulted in what eventually came to be known as the “War on Crime.” It was ushered in to deal more sternly with violent offenses, drug crimes and other charges that were perceived as meriting lengthy prison terms. Over time, a complement of tough exactions to promote the agenda came into being, such as mandatory minimum sentences and three-strike laws.

A direct result of that get-tougher-on-crime era was — and continues to be — a starkly increased prison population at both the federal and state levels.

For many years now, though, a growing legion of critics has been questioning the assumptions of such a justice system, as well as its effectiveness. Prisons across the country, including in Georgia, are unduly strained by bloated inmate populations, with the associated financial toll being insuperably large. The U.S. Department of Justice states that prison costs nationally stood at about $83 billion in 2009.

Multiple studies have also emerged that question the effectiveness of prison terms for many inmates, especially lengthy terms for non-violent offenders. Alternatives are being suggested and employed.

A new debate is strongly underway. Our next blog post will take a look at some of its basic features.

Source: CNN, “Justice plans sentencing changes for non-violent criminals,” Even Perez, Aug. 7, 2013