Tags: Harsh | Punishments | Curb | Crime

Harsh Punishments Curb Crime

Wednesday, 27 April 2005 12:00 AM

In the '70s and '80s, there were demands for use of the death penalty, for mandatory prison time and eliminating judicial discretion in sentencing. As a result, jail and prison populations increased sharply. In 1978, the incarcerated population in federal and state prisons was 307,276 and 158,394 were in local jails on a single-day census. Today, the population in federal and state prisons is 1,494,216, and 636,964 are in local jails in a similar one-day census.

The draconian drug laws enacted in New York known as the Rockefeller drug laws imposed mandatory minimum sentences ranging from four to 15 years based on the amount of drugs the offender had in his possession at the time of arrest.

With the application of severe punishments demanded by the citizenry and imposed by the legislatures, crime rates began to fall. Over the years, with the reduction in crime, the voices of those opposed to severe sentences began to be heard, particularly with regard to drug convictions. Last year, New York state enacted new laws reducing the sentences for drug possession and making those sentences retroactive, so as to free hundreds of incarcerated non-violent drug offenders still serving long sentences imposed under the Rockefeller drug laws.

Some believe that further reductions are in order. They are probably right, but only with regard to drug violations. Those who advocate reduced punishment for other crimes as well as the elimination of the death penalty are, in my opinion, dead wrong. Our society's increasing freedom from crime is the result of better law enforcement and harsher penalties. Reduce enforcement or relax the penalties, and we will likely find ourselves again up to our eyeballs in crime.

The bulk of those committing crimes of violence are recidivists. The longer they remain in prison, the fewer opportunities they have to terrorize new victims. According to a study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics of the U.S. Department of Justice which tracked 272,111 prisoners released from prison in 15 states, "67.5% of prisoners released in 1994 were rearrested within 3 years."

When a defending lawyer in a criminal case states to the court, "This is my client's first offense," he is really saying in all probability, "This is the first time my client has been caught." Those who engage in criminal acts of violence have often been involved in hundreds of incidents before being arrested for the first time. Prison is the only way to protect the public from further criminal activity.

I believe the death penalty should be available in particularly abhorrent situations. While I believe the death penalty is a deterrent (its opponents do not), even if it were not, it is appropriate punishment for particularly egregious crimes. The U.S. Supreme Court decision that restored the constitutionality of the death penalty requires that legislatures spell out the special circumstances giving rise to the death penalty and allow a defendant to demonstrate any and all mitigating circumstances to a second jury during the sentencing phase.

Today, the voices calling for the elimination of the death penalty are winning. Many observers believe that in the not-too-distant future, that penalty will not be available in most states, perhaps in no states. It appears that day is already here in New York state, where the Legislature is prepared to eliminate it now by not passing an amended law correcting constitutional impediments in the old law (decided by the Court of Appeals) enacted after Governor Pataki was elected in 1994.

The drive to reduce sentences and to eliminate the death penalty is gaining momentum. You can be sure when crime rates start climbing because of the earlier release of recidivists, the public will demand restoration of the reduced or eliminated penalties and mandatory sentencing that produced the favorable results we are now experiencing.

Do we have to wait for a surge in violent crime before such a reversal in attitude takes place? I hope not.


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In the '70s and '80s, there were demands for use of the death penalty, for mandatory prison time andeliminating judicial discretion in sentencing.As a result, jail and prison populations increased sharply.In 1978, the incarcerated population in federal and state prisons was...
Wednesday, 27 April 2005 12:00 AM
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