To get ‘smart on crime,’ follow some basic steps

By Richie Marra, SCI Chester

The “tough-on-crime” mantra espoused by politicians in years past has been replaced with a call to be “smart on crime” – a response to the rising costs of mass incarceration, which ironically, is the product of the “tough-on-crime” policies in the first place. Nevertheless, it is a suitable idea; that is, as long as we can properly define what “smart on crime” means.

For starters, we need to address the leading premise that “smart on crime” alludes to: Less security and incarceration for no-violent offenders, and more security and harsher sentences for non-violent offenders, and more security and harsher sentences for violent offenders.

Making his rounds with legislatures just prior to his confirmation in 2011, state Corrections Department Secretary John Wetzel, said, “Everybody I talked to said, ‘We’re going to do something to reduce non-violent offenders.’” Great!

Putting prisoners in these two boxes (violent vs. non-violent) seems easy enough. Those convicted of non-violent crimes (drugs, arson, theft, DUI, etc.) are considered “non-violent offenders.” And those convicted of violent crimes (assault, murder, rape, robbery, etc.) are labeled “violent offenders.” But categorizing offenders as either violent or non-violent, based solely on their crime, is overly simplistic and could be misleading.

This way of defining offenders is not being smart on crime; neither is making policy decision based on this type of analysis. Being smart on crime should mean eliminating any policy that adheres to a one-size-fit-all mentality. There are no shortcuts. Decisions about offenders need to be made on an individual basis, maybe starting with their crime, but not letting their crime alone be indicative of their future dangerousness.

Decisions about dangerousness and the amount of time offenders need to spend behind bars should not be a one-time decision. They should be adjusted as time passes. On the front end, these decisions made at the time of sentencing, when the crime and the offender’s past history (or lack of) are given the most consideration. A good start. But as time passes, people change. And the longer the time, the more opportunity for prison officials to better evaluate and assess real risk.

Being smart on crime should also mean including more options besides incarceration on the back end. Just as it is smart to consider alternatives to prison for offenders who are not an immediate danger to society, it is equally smart to consider the same for offenders who have spent 20-30 years behind bars, have been rehabilitated, have reached a mature age, and pose no risk; especially where further incarceration no longer provides any benefits to society.

When prisoners are young and the most dangerous, the cost of incarceration is the lowest.

It is reasonable to make the association that those serving short sentences (say, one-three years) are likely to be the non-violent offenders, and those serving longer sentences (say, 20-30 years) are likely to be the violent offenders; however, these assumptions are only likely to be true at the time of sentencing. Whether we consider offenders as dangerous or not depends on when we are doing the evaluation. Assuming that both individuals mention above are 20-years-old, the disparity of dangerousness between them is greatest at the time of sentencing. The latter, after serving 30 years and reaching the age of 50, is most likely to be the least dangerous when compared to the former, who after serving three years will still only be 23 years old. That is why each case, each offender, needs to be evaluated, and reevaluated, on their own merit.

For the most part, it is surprisingly easy to identify the once-labeled “violent offenders” who show no signs of aggression or violent behavior. My experience has been that prison staff can be the most accurate in predicting future dangerousness. And although housing officers, work supervisors, and program facilitators are in the best position to evaluate prisoners, their observations and opinions are not give the weight they deserve.

By extension, being smart on crime should also mean to stop relying solely on the check boxes, the forms and the procedures, and allow the people who have the best viewpoint to play a bigger role in the decision-making process. And maybe most of all, legislators, judges and corrections officials need the courage to act, and make the smart decisions. I’m confident that by adopting the ideas mentioned above, a more efficient – and just – criminal justice system will emerge.