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Corrections should play a larger role in the debate over sentencing reform.

The question of what constitutes an appropriate sentence for a given criminal offense has been debated throughout America's history. People's ideas on the subject depend on their views on crime, punishment, treatment and rehabilitation. People will always disagree on what causes a person to commit a crime, the purpose of his or her sentence and the sentence's effects.

In our system, laws are created for all of us to abide by, and most agree that people should be punished for breaking them. What we haven't resolved is how we can best mete out punishments to offenders commensurate with the offenses they have committed.

The problem of sentencing has been and continues to be a political hot potato. No one wants to appear soft on crime. Like it or not, Americans demand prison terms--often long prison terms--as a means of punishment. They view long sentences as a way to get the "problem" out of the way, thereby restoring safety to the streets. Unfortunately, we are running out of room in many of our facilities.

I think it's time for everyone--practitioners, academicians, politicians and interested citizens--to open a national dialogue on sentencing. We have to move beyond some of the traditional ways we've approached this issue and start considering other possibilities.

Corrections professionals have an important role to play in this debate. Who better knows about punishment and what it means than us? Perhaps the only other people who do are the offenders and their families. Here are some of the questions calling for examination:

Should we consider establishing nationwide sentencing codes or guidelines to eliminate the disparities we see based on ethnicity and geography?

Have we examined all possible intermediate sanctions that can be used as sentencing requirements?

Can we establish some type of exchange rate in which one sanction could be used instead of another for certain offenses? Just as we have a foreign exchange rate for currency, perhaps offenders could exchange, for example, an 18-month prison sentence for a one-year schedule of paying fines.

And finally, how about showing the public the actual cost of incarceration and asking citizens to approve how much they want to spend on certain offenses? This system might operate on a point basis.

We need to generate as many creative ideas as we can. Potential solutions should not be stifled by fear of the unknown, the untested or the different. If our desire to correct our sentencing structure is genuine, we must construct a vision of how a better system might work.

ACA President Perry M. Johnson would like to make sentencing reform a major issue for ACA to address during his term of office. I strongly agree with his belief that American corrections professionals should lead this debate. Frankly, if we don't do it, it won't be done.
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No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
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Author:Gondles, James A., Jr.
Publication:Corrections Today
Date:Feb 1, 1993
Words:465
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