In Nevada, it costs about $25,000 per year to keep a person in state prison. We, the taxpayers, are paying for this and it is costing us a fortune. We have been scared into believing that we need to lock bad people up for years to make our neighborhoods safe.
But this approach doesn’t work. All it has done is force a lot of nonviolent offenders to spend years behind bars at our expense who need not be there. This has come about through mandatory minimum sentences, three-strike laws and reliance on the fallacy that tough sentences deter crime.
Judges used to have the discretion to sentence a person according to their specific situation. Now it is dictated to them by statute. If you are caught with marijuana in your possession the amount determines how long a sentence you get. If you are caught with crack cocaine you get a longer sentenced than if it was powder cocaine. If your third offense is a burglary, you get set up for life along with the murderers and other serious offenders. And we, the taxpayers, are paying for all of it.
I just read about a case where a man was sentenced to one to four years in prison for spitting on a police officer. That could cost us $100,000. Yes, he needs to be punished but let’s get real. The officer wasn’t hurt, so how about some long-term community service?
Criminal sentencing doesn’t take into consideration the best use of public funds. Instead of spending $100,000 to lock someone up for drug use, we could use that money for more police or for training programs. Surveys have shown that longer sentences don’t deter crimes. Most criminals don’t sit down and look through the statutes to see how long they can be in jail if they get caught. Most criminals don’t think they are going to get caught.
I am not saying that certain violent people don’t need to be put in jail. But we are lumping nonviolent and violent criminals together. I have talked with several judges who hate having to sentence according to mandatory minimums or zero-tolerance policies. People who make mistakes get sent to jail with those who intend to commit crimes. It doesn’t make any sense.
In Nevada we only spend about $5,000 per year on our kids for their education. But we spend $25,000 a year on a convicted drug user. I think we have it backwards. For years, I have heard that we can’t afford more police or to increase their pay but without a second thought we spend tens of thousands to keep someone in jail because they have a drug habit.
We can better use our limited funds on our higher priorities. We need to revamp our sentencing laws to allow our judges to use their discretion when sentencing criminals and not needlessly add to our state’s financial distress.
Jeff Blanck is an attorney in private practice in Reno. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.