There's no doubt that incarceration is the best deterrent to crime, violent or nonviolent. Why? Because it's 100 percent effective. If one is locked up behind bars, one cannot be out in society engaging in lawbreaking.
This is why we reject the notion urged on state lawmakers last week by Georgia Parole Board Chairman Milton "Buddy" Nix. He wants them to "tweak" the longer prison terms passed in the 1990s for murder, rape, armed burglary and aggravated assault.
Is Nix nuts? These are the most violent of crimes. The longer violent criminals are locked up, the safer the rest of us are. Moreover, one reason lawmakers mandated tougher sentences was because of a public backlash against the state parole board for letting violent criminals out long before their terms were up.
In fairness, the parole board was under pressure to OK early releases back then because the state was under a federal mandate to relieve prison overcrowding.
The state also went on a prison-building spree to accommodate larger prison populations which, in fact, have grown 167 percent over the past 15 years. Longer and larger incarceration rates are working, not only in Georgia, but elsewhere around the United States. Surely this is why the FBI reports that, nationwide, murders are down 6 percent and violent crime 2 percent.
Nix is on the wrong track to argue against success like that. But, again, the concern today is prison overcrowding. Georgia's tax revenue decline over the past two years forced cuts of more than $20 million from the Department of Corrections. This has corrections officers looking at ways to reduce costs and relieve overcrowding without endangering the public.
And perhaps they've found a way, at least with regard to some nonviolent criminals, such as drug offenders. They could be handled outside prison - but closely monitored, required to fulfill community service work and, most importantly, report to day centers for testing and counseling.
Pilot projects using these nonincarceration techniques have shown they not only cost much less than imprisonment, but are more successful at cutting recidivism rates. For example, studies show that in the pilot projects an average of only one in 10 nonviolent offenders committed a new crime in three years, but that figure rose to three in 10 for those who did prison time.
In light of these findings, the public should have no objection to further experimenting with the absence of hard prison time for nonviolent criminals to ensure there is plenty of cell space available for violent criminals to serve out their full sentences.
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