November 26, 1998
When Governor Romer recently proposed his 10 billion-dollar state budget, he suggested that criminal sentences were too long, and that Colorado should think about shortening them to free up money for other state needs. Colorado spends too much on incarceration, he said, and we cannot sustain our present course into the future.
Well, maybe the governor has a point. In fact he didn’t go far enough. An awful lot of money goes into law enforcement and emergency response services. If we just did away with police and fire departments, we could save all kinds of money and still have room in the budget for really important agencies that preserve our quality of life — like the Board of Cosmetology, which licenses beauticians, or the public agency that decides how many taxis should be allowed to operate at DIA.
That’s an absurd proposal, of course, intended to underscore that not all government programs are of equal worth to society. Some government services are essential to safeguarding life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Others are not. Among the services provided by government, protecting peace, order and public safety is the most vital.
With limited resources but unlimited wants, society has to prioritize: Which functions must government perform and which might it leave to the private and non-profit sectors? It would be nice to believe that the governor and other like-minded people go through such an analysis when they propose something like shorter sentences in order to divert money elsewhere. But there is no sign that is so. Rather, Mr. Romer made his proposal as if the only things at stake were bean-counting and budget-balancing.
Coloradans can only hope that members of the legislature, who will ultimately decide this matter, approach their responsibility more seriously than the governor has. The fundamental question should be: Can we return more convicts to the streets without unreasonable risk to the public safety? If we can’t be sure the answer is yes, we must look elsewhere for money to fund other priorities, or else do without them. To do otherwise, would be reckless.
The governor did not cite any reports or data to show that shorter terms improve public safety, or that they offer better rehabilitation. Instead, he said that our rate of incarceration and prison construction were too expensive. But too expensive compared to what? Would we be better off to leave the bad guys on the streets? Or to put them back there sooner? The data suggest not.
Prisoners are in prison because they were willing to do bad things. And the sad truth is, most will continue on that path. One study of young adult prisoners across the country found that over 69% were rearrested for serious crimes within six years of their release. Another national study of felons sentenced to probation (presumably for crimes less serious than those that would have resulted in a prison term) concluded that 43% were rearrested for a felony offense within 3 years of sentencing.
Here in Colorado, over a third of state prisoners have served a previous sentence at a state facility. And that figure reflects only the crimes that resulted in arrests and convictions. We cannot know how many unsolved crimes inmates commit before or after their prison term.
What we do know is that the rate of serious crime in Colorado has dropped, gradually but steadily, since lawmakers stiffened sentences in the mid-1980’s. In fact, according to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, the rate of serious crime has gone down almost every year this decade.
It appears that longer sentences are working. But now, in a perverse twist of logic, advocates of shorter sentences argue that the falling crime rate proves we don’t need new prison beds or tough sentences. They just don’t get it. When we keep dangerous people locked up longer, the streets are safer, and the crime rate reflects that. If we put thugs back on the streets, we can expect them to do their thing, and the crime rate will reflect that.
There may be evidence and arguments in favor of shorter sentences. If so, let’s hear them. But let’s not make decisions with such far-reaching and potentially tragic consequences just to fix the budget. Not, at least, until we take a good look at other government functions, like cosmetology and taxi licensing.
Shawn Mitchell is a Senior Fellow of the Independence Institute a free-market think tank located in Golden, Colorado. https://i2i.org
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