Op/Ed: Smart justice begins with smart sentencing

Better guidelines needed to reduce number of prisoners, cut costs

By Terence Farrell, Chester County Commissioner

Chester County Commissioner Terence Farrell

Chester County Commissioner Terence Farrell

Local lockups, county jails, state prisons and federal correctional institutions are filled and overflowing across the United Sates. The cost of housing all of the offenders is staggering, especially in this time when many needed social programs for the poor and those with disabilities are struggling to find funds to provide services.

A recent book, Justice or Just This?: A Constitutional Trespass, by Berks County Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey Kent Sprecher reveals some eye-opening facts about incarceration in this country.

The book states that 25 percent of the world’s prison population resides in jails in the United States and that we have the highest incarceration rate in the world; five times the world’s average. The prison population has increased 1,100 percent in 30 years, according to Judge Sprecher. In 1972, there were 200,000 inmates and by 2010 the number had increased to 2.3 million.

The huge increase has put a strain on the pocketbooks of governments. In 2007, Sprecher reported, states spent $44 billion on prisons.

Finding smarter, less costly ways to rehabilitate and punish criminals is becoming a focus of many governments and governmental organizations across the country. The National Association of Counties (NACo)  and the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania (CCAP) are both focusing on “smart justice” initiatives.  Next month, CCAP will be holding an event recognizing jails, detention centers and partners in criminal justice for their efforts at advancing programs that reduce populations in jails; that result in better outcomes post-release; and that address public safety in innovative and non-traditional ways.

Chester County taxpayers spend millions on our justice system, including our prison. We are fortunate that the county has been a leader in diverting some of the criminal population from its prison to less costly and beneficial rehabilitative programs like Drug Court and Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition (ARD).  These initiatives are championed and instituted by members of county judiciary, and are supported by court-related departments and the Department of Human Services when dealing with issues such as mental health and drug and alcohol abuse.

Sadly, our jails and prisons will never be totally empty, as some members of our society prey on innocent, vulnerable citizens and need to be segregated from the peaceful and law-abiding population.  Many strict sentencing laws were passed after lenient sentences were handed out to criminals by judges in horrific cases that enraged the public.  But we should explore more ways to divert those criminals that could benefit from alternative sentencing, as it would be beneficial to the offenders and to tax-paying citizens.

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