Nonviolent Criminals: Lock 'Em Up?

Americans don't feel safe, but hard-line approach questioned by liberals, moderates

GET-TOUGH efforts to take criminals off the streets are coming under increasing scrutiny, as prison-building costs mount and nonviolent offenders are caught in the web designed primarily to snare violent offenders.

In the United States last year, 84 percent of new prison inmates committed nonviolent crimes. California, which has been in the forefront of the get-tough approach with its "three strikes and you're out" law, incarcerates twice as many new inmates for marijuana possession as for murder, rape, and kidnapping combined, according to two new studies.

The studies, coming from moderate to liberal positions on the criminal-justice spectrum, urge Americans to rethink how best to deal with nonviolent offenders.

Two approaches

Criminal-justice arguments continue to fall along a left-right axis, with conservatives desiring tough penalties and liberals emphasizing the need for preventative programs and rehabilitation. Now, some moderate voices are also questioning the hard-line approach.

In particular, the study by the National Criminal Justice Commission, a group of 34 citizens including representatives of the law-enforcement community, said that to populate prison cells (at a construction cost of $100,000 apiece) with nonviolent drug offenders is "a classic bait and switch .... California has more persons incarcerated for drug offenses than the entire prison population in 1980."

Gov. Pete Wilson (R) has defended the "three strikes" law, stating last week that it is the reason crime in California cities is down. Others, however, point out that crime has dropped in many metropolitan areas around the country.

Despite "three strikes" laws, aggressive federal prison-building programs, and a historic increase in death penalties last year, polls show Americans still do not feel safe. Hence, the debate on criminal justice is likely to intensify during the election season as each party tries to "out tough" the other.

The studies, however, suggest that violent-crime rates are not as bad as the public believes. The commission found that since 1985 the crime rate has decreased by 5 percent, the murder rate has remained the same for 20 years, the most likely crime victim is a person under 18, and the least likely victim is an elderly person. The study found the three safest states to live are North Dakota, Maine, and New Hampshire; the least safe are California, Texas, and Louisiana.

Meanwhile, the Center on Criminal and Juvenile Justice in San Francisco found that, after two years under California's "three strikes" law, 192 people received a life sentence for a third felony as a result of marijuana possession. Forty were incarcerated for murder, 25 for rape, and 24 for kidnapping. Under "three strikes," second-time offenders who have already served time for a violent offense get double sentences for a second felony, and they receive a life sentence for any third felony.

The San Francisco study also focused on race, noting that under "three strikes" blacks are 13 times more likely to be sent to jail than whites in California. State officials deny race has any bearing, saying the issue is being used to distract from the effectiveness of the law.

The two groups are thought to be answering an earlier, conservative, bipartisan Council on Crime report headed by William Bennett, which advocated tougher laws.

Shooting with both barrels

Some moderates, however, advocate both tougher sentencing and preventative programs. National Criminal Justice Commission member Nicholas Pastore, police chief of New Haven, Conn., used crackdowns and social programs to drive gangs out of his city. Five years ago, national gangs tried to put down roots in New Haven. Today, they are gone.

"We stopped denying we had a gang problem and gave it top priority by tracking youth gangs," Chief Pastore said. "But we are also doing the other side - community policing, collaborating with state and local agencies, and showing people we care." President Clinton will visit New Haven on March 16 to commemorate the city's police.

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