Crime and Punishment
Politicians are vowing to get tough, but will more prisons and fewer perks really cut crime?
It sometimes takes outrages to change the law, and extreme cases are fueling a campaign to extend prison terms. Darnell Collins was paroled last year in New Jersey after serving half of a 20-year robbery sentence. Last week he killed seven people in a five-day horror spree. In Oklahoma, state Judge Gary Lumpkin recalls his shock while hearing the appeal of an armed robber sentenced 14 months earlier to a 10-year term. The man, already released, was in court listening. Says James Wootton of the Washington-based Safe Streets Alliance: "The justice system allows violent criminals out too easily, and the public wants that changed."
With crime the runaway leader among Americans' worries, politicians are finding themselves in a bind. Fearful constituents demand a crackdown, but they also want tax cuts and basic services. Factor in the need to respect convicts' legal rights and a crisis is at hand. "States are realizing that they cannot afford to satisfy the public cries for vengeance," says Steven Donziger of the private National Criminal Justice Commission, who spoke last week at a "summit" on prison construction convened in Washington by architects and state prison directors.
Oklahoma is a case in point. Its prisons are overflowing (story, Page 28), but Republican Frank Keating won the governorship last year partly on a pledge to get even tougher. The Legislature ended its session in late May squabbling over how to pay for prison expansion. Then the governor faced a court hearing over housing inmates in two turn-of-the-century cellblocks a judge had declared unfit. Keating, who recently told prison wardens that their institutions house "slimeballs," was stymied. Admitting his action was "not sound corrections policy," he declared a state of emergency and authorized early releases of about 500 convicts. Noting that prisons had received larger increases than other agencies, state Sen. Cal Hobson observed: "It's getting more and more difficult to find enough money for every state need."
Tough-talking officials in state after state are being forced to reconcile competing interests. In Michigan, which may soon run out of empty prison beds, Gov. John Engler said last week that "all of us look at the futility of having to spend money on prisons, but we recognize the public necessity." A state panel will consider an overhaul of sentencing laws. In New York, legislative leaders agreed with Gov. George Pataki in early June on a plan to ease a crowding crisis by boosting penalties for violent criminals while reducing those for many sentenced under tough 1970s-era antidrug laws. Eventually, California may be faced with what the Rand Corp. estimates will be $5.5 billion in added annual costs--$300 per taxpayer--to meet the "three strikes and you're out" law that gives life terms to repeat offenders.
The high cost of punishment has prompted some politicians to focus on the flashier issue of prison perks. Critics portray inmates munching steak dinners, dialing up premium cable-television channels and exercising on fancy equipment. "Stop building prisons like Holiday Inns" is a mantra in recent focus groups by GOP pollster Frank Luntz, says the firm's Mark Allen.