Truth About Sentencing

AMERICANS want violent felons dealt with so that they do not harm the innocent. This sentiment, reflected in the crime legislation Congress passed last year, also motivates the new crime bill, part of the House Republicans' ''Contract With America.'' Half of the money allocated for the new crime bill is for prison construction: about $10.5 billion over six years.

States where prisoners actually serve 85 percent of their sentences qualify for the first $5 billion. At the moment, only three states qualify.

The second $5 billion goes to states hewing to a sentencing formula by which prisoners serve closer to 85 percent of their terms. On average, prisoners now serve about 38 percent of their sentences.

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Some assumptions in prison funding deserve a closer look. First, there is a significant cost-benefit analysis question. To qualify for funds, states will have to spend more to keep current and future prisoners incarcerated than they will actually receive in funds from the federal government to build prisons. That sounds like a disincentive. Will states be willing to pick up the cost? If not, will Americans truly get better law enforcement?

Second, funding is tied to violent offenders. But the new funding doesn't differentiate among the ways states hand out sentences for violent crimes. This means that in some states, fewer violent criminals will be incarcerated.

Third, will state judges face pressure to increase sentences, knowing it is tied to prison funding?

Too many liberal programs are just that -- too programmatic. But a conservative get-tough strategy also ignores a traditional point, the possibility of redemption and correction. The new bill says nothing about this.

Creating momentum is part of the GOP strategy. That is smart politics; it is how the Democrats got the Great Society legislation of the 1960s. But Americans need to know specifics about what they are getting, and whether the bill will work.

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