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Sunday, May 4, 2014

Criminal Justice Quote: Who Should Go to Prison and Who Should Not?

     Although the number of individuals in America's prisons now tops two million, and we spend roughly $200 billion annually on responding to crime, our system is plagued with repeat offenders.
The sad fact is that two-thirds of those released from prison re-offend within two or three years. In California, we now spend more that $25 billion annually on crime--more than twice what we spend on higher education--but 70 percent of the 125,000 individuals released from our prisons each year are back behind bars within a couple of years….

     When we combine all the crimes committed each year and factor in the seriousness of those crimes, the result is best represented by a pyramid. At the very top are the worst crimes--the murders, rapes, and violent assaults that so rightly command our most intense attention. The violent crimes occupy the top section of that pyramid because they are so serious and threatening, but they also are the tip-top because they are a minority of crimes. Only a quarter of all offenders admitted to prison are violent offenders. The largest mass of the crime pyramid is the truly staggering number of nonviolent offenders. According to the FBI, 96 percent of all arrests are of nonviolent offenders. [These nonviolent crimes include, however, grand theft, public corruption, arson, burglary, and the possession of child pornography. Where do these criminals fit in the crime pyramid?]

     The problem is that we have been using only the tools best suited to combating the offenders at the top of the pyramid for the entire crime pyramid. [Example: Using SWAT tactics in low-risk drug busts.] For several decades the passage of tough laws and long sentences has created an illusion in the public's mind that public safety is best served when we treat all offenders pretty much the same way: arrest, convict, imprison, parole, and hope they learn their lesson. What the numbers say loud and clear, however, is that most nonviolent offenders are learning the wrong lesson, and in many cases, they are becoming better and more hardened criminals during their prison stays.

Kamala D. Harris, Smart on Crime, 2009 

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