Price of Prison
Commission Hears Testimony on Criminal Justice Issues
Posted Apr 1, 2004 11:56 AM CST
By Margaret Graham Tebo
When John Creuzot was a prosecutor, he sought and obtained the death penalty in many cases.
But somewhere along the way, after he became a state judge in Texas his views on the administration of the death penalty, and criminal sentences in general, changed.
“We’re still locking people up today when we should be doing so much more to help them at the front end,” Creuzot said. “My goal when I sentence someone now is to prevent them from having to commit another crime.”
Creuzot made his remarks in February before the ABA’s Justice Kennedy Commission at the midyear meeting in San Antonio. Commission chair Steven Saltzburg said the panel is studying the percentage of U.S. residents incarcerated as compared to other countries, the use of mandatory minimum sentences, alternative sentencing, dehumanization in prisons and the re-entry of released prisoners into society.
ABA President Dennis W. Archer created the commission in response to a speech by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy at the annual meeting last August. In that address, Kennedy said that federal mandatory minimum sentences are too high, often resulting in prison terms that are “unwise and unjust.” He called on the legal profession to study and reform the criminal justice system.
In Texas, about one in 21 adults is now incarcerated, or on probation or parole. Of the $2.5 billion per year the state allocates for criminal justice, some $2 billion is spent on prisons, $167 million on parole services and only about $221 million on so-called front-end programs designed to provide treatment and deterrence, according to testimony from Carl Reynolds, former general counsel to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
Reynolds and other witnesses said that an early 1990s trend toward more truth in sentencing led to stricter sentences that were not always in the best interest of society. Once out of prison, ex-cons found it difficult to find jobs or even to qualify for housing. Many returned to crime because they had no other means of support.
Creuzot said drug sentences, in particular, should be examined. Often, small-time drug offenders are less likely to repeat their crimes if instead of going to jail they enter drug or mental health treatment and job skills programs, he said.
“Do violent animals need to be locked up? Yes. Does that mean that every low-level offender needs to get a long sentence in the name of keeping the community safe? My answer is no,” he said.