Columns » Ernest Dumas

Where's the compassion?

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The New York Times reports a national trend that has been in scant evidence in Arkansas: Christian conservatives rereading Jesus and taking a more compassionate view of prisoners. The religious impulse is reinforced, according to the Times, by alarm at the spectacular growth of taxes spent on corrections and the recognition that 30 years of lock-‘em-up-and-throw-away-the-key policies have not worked.

Maybe Gov. Huckabee was the trailblazer for the movement and we just missed it. Recall that six or seven years ago, the former preacher said that Arkansas should stop locking up all the nonviolent offenders, especially drug users, and find ways to treat them in the community rather than bury them in the penitentiary for long terms and at great cost to the taxpayers. He was going to take that on and get the legislature to alter the tough sentencing laws that it began enacting in the 1970s.

Whether it was recognition of the futility of such a campaign or mere lassitude, Huckabee never carried through. Two years ago, many lawmakers, mainly lawyers and Democrats, talked about reversing three decades of tougher and tougher sentences and of bringing down the incarceration rate, but the 2005 legislative session did almost exactly the opposite. It passed 20 bills lengthening sentences — Huckabee signed them — and a single bill that made some prisoners, makers of methamphetamine, eligible for parole a little sooner. Conservative Republicans united to oppose even that bill, which barely passed.

Arkansas ought to be hospitable to the latest prison-reform movement, this one led by fundamentalist politicians like Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., and a bunch of Republican congressmen. Arkansas now corrals about 20,000 people in state prisons and local jails (another 17,000 are under supervision in communities), and the cost to the taxpayers of state correctional programs alone will sail past $325 million this year. Since 1977, when the legislature decided to get tough on criminals, general-revenue appropriations for corrections have multiplied about 150 times.

A symbol of the reform movement is the Second Chance Act, a barely noticed bill in the 2006 Congress that would appropriate a piddling $100 million for grants to states to develop model programs for reintegrating prisoners into communities when they finish their sentences. States that accept the grants would be obligated to review their laws that throw up barriers to reintegration. Such laws were passed almost universally during the past 30 years to make it hard for criminals to re-enter their careers or their communities. Sex offenders are the most common objects.

Congress almost passed the bill, and with liberal Democrats and many right-wing Republicans behind it, the bill is expected to pass next year. The legislation really doesn’t do much, but it is a reversal of 30 years of federal lawmaking.

The impetus for the tough-on-crime drive was President Richard Nixon’s anti-crime political strategy and a widely celebrated academic study that seemed to conclude that rehabilitation programs were fruitless. The best the government could do was lock them up and get them out of the way for as long as possible. So that is what nearly every state began to do. Arkansas and California were among the first. The author of the study later concluded that he had been wrong but no one paid attention.

The leader in the Arkansas legislature in 1977, when the first of the mandatory-sentence bill passed, was Rep. Bobby Glover of Carlisle, who is still around in his second incarnation. He would be a good one to lead the reform movement, but there is no sign of redemption. The best prospect is Sen. Jim Luker of Wynne, who tried a passel of bills in 2005 to soften some of the sentencing rules.

Many legislators, perhaps most of them, recognized long ago that the tougher sentences did not afford people much more safety and were gobbling up a burgeoning share of taxes that would be better spent for education and health services. When the tough-sentencing bills were proposed, prison officials warned that longer terms would produce huge increases in the prison population and vastly greater spending. Legislators scoffed, but the forecasts proved conservative.

Some lawmakers also mourned that the policies did not necessarily follow the Christian virtues of redemption and forgiveness. Moses and Paul, after all, were murderers who would never have got a chance to redeem themselves under current U.S. laws.

But the Sermon on the Mount cannot compete with a greater imperative: getting re-elected. No one wants to be accused of being soft on crime. A vote to scale back sentencing grids or even a vote against a bill for still stiffer sentences is a certain path to political extinction.

At least that is the common wisdom in Arkansas. But many states have taken serious steps since 2000 to reduce long-haul imprisonment for nonviolent crimes. Mississippi and Louisiana, which ran far ahead of the other states in the percentage of their people who were imprisoned, ended their no-parole policies. Arkansas is not too far behind its southern neighbors with 671 of every 100,000 people behind bars. For blacks, the rate is almost triple that.

Meantime, the prisons are asking for whopping budget increases. It’s a good time for lawmakers to ponder what Jesus would do and whether they can any longer afford to do anything else.

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