The Cost of Confinement Changes Attitudes

It has been several months since I have posted. Frankly, I have been so busy practicing law that I haven’t had time to write about it. However, I wanted to just pass along a couple matters that have been in my “blog bin” for some time. The economics of incarceration has made for strange bedfellows. For many years, “liberals” (to use a generic term) and those concerned with both individual and human rights have been advocating for less incarceration and more rehabilitation. “Conservatives” and law and order folks have been promoting more incarceration and less rehabilitation as a way to address crime. However, the incredible cost of the later approach has made conservatives re-think their policies, especially in light of the economic situation in this country and the dire financial situation that many states and counties find themselves in. In South Dakota, that change in attitude led to the recent passage of Senate Bill 70, which is a sweeping reform of our criminal justice system. It places a much greater emphasis on rehab programs and lowers the penalties for many non-violent drug and alcohol offenses. The legislation was promoted by our Republican governor and passed by a predominantly Republican legislature. Nationally, the same trend can be seen. Recently, former Attorney General Edwin Meese spoke at the American Bar Association’s Criminal Justice Section Conference. Once a staunch advocate for the “lock ’em up” approach, his message to the ABA was that over-criminalization is hurting the country. He noted that every year we increase the number of federal crimes (currently there are an estimated 5,000 federal criminal crimes) and he estimated there are close to 300,000 federal regulations that contain criminal penalties. The Spring 2013 issue of Criminal Justice is entirely devoted to the issue of over-criminalization. It is a must read for anyone interested in the criminal justice system, as well as those interested in the economics of incarceration.