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Marijuana seized in a raid in Florida in 1997. Last year more than half of all drug arrests were for marijuana, almost always for possession. (AP photo)

Basic questions on the criminal justice system

ASK THIS | December 01, 2010

Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, offers five questions as starting points for coverage of criminal justice in America. Each one of them could result in a solid story.

By Marc Mauer

Q. In May 2010 the U.S. Supreme Court declared unconstitutional the practice of sentencing juveniles to life without parole for non-homicide offenses. But states don’t always adhere to court rulings in an expeditious manner. Are they complying in this instance?

More than 2,000 juveniles in the U.S. are serving sentences of life without parole, some for crimes committed when they were as young as 13. The U.S. is the only nation that currently imposes such penalties. The Supreme Court decision applied to the 135 cases in which juveniles committed non-homicide offenses. Of this total, 77 are in Florida alone.  The decision requires the ten states (California, Florida, Iowa, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Virginia) that house such juveniles to resentence these cases and to enact policies that allow for parole consideration after a specified term of years.  

Q. What proportion of drug arrests in your jurisdiction are for marijuana offenses?

Since 1990 the proportion of drug arrests nationally comprised of marijuana charges has risen considerably. In 2009, more than half of the 1.6 million drug arrests were for marijuana offenses, and of those, 88 percent were for possession.  Relatively few marijuana arrests result in significant prison terms, yet they consume substantial law enforcement and court resources that could be devoted to more serious offenses.

Q. As the holiday season approaches, in how many cases is your governor considering granting clemency to people with felony convictions?

In years past, most governors and presidents used the holiday season as a time to consider pardons and commutations for people with criminal convictions. In many cases, clemency was granted to citizens with long-ago convictions who had become responsible members of their communities. In other cases, commutations were granted in cases where offenders had received lengthy prison terms but had acquired exemplary records of behavior in prison. In recent decades, largely for political reasons, the number of such clemencies has declined substantially. President Obama, for example, has yet to issue a single grant of clemency since taking office.

Q. What is your state doing to control prison spending in order to cope with the fiscal crisis?

In recent years a number of states have instituted policies and practices to control spending by reducing prison populations in ways that do not jeopardize public safety. New York and New Jersey, with population reductions since 1999 of 20 percent and 19 percent respectively, have led the nation in this regard. A key component of the strategy in New York was to implement “merit time” policies designed to provide incentives for people in prison to participate in education and vocational training as a means of reducing the length of stay in prison. In New Jersey, state officials established Regional Assessment Centers as a way to reduce the number of parolees returned to prison, through implementing structured supervision and services in the community. Other states are considering diverting low-level drug offenders into treatment programs rather than prison and reexamining “truth in sentencing” policies that have substantially increased the amount of prison time to be served before offenders can be considered for parole release.

Q. What proportion of your state’s budget is devoted to corrections, and how has that changed over time?

As a result of the quadrupling of the prison population since 1980, state spending on corrections has soared, often at the expense of higher education and other services. In California, for example, Governor Schwarzenegger has noted that three decades ago “10 percent of the general fund went to higher education and three percent went to prisons. Today, almost 11 percent goes to prisons and only 7.5 percent goes to higher education.  What does it say about any state that focuses more on prison uniforms than caps and gowns? It simply is not healthy.”

Posted by massvocals
12/02/2010, 06:28 AM

its not a surprised that the system of things ( authority ) such as police , courts , and such adhere themselves to behavior of citizen such as drugs or selling such prohibition on any substance bring an illegal market , when the facts are so ..that millions do such behavior So therefore its really issue of system not in compliance with the public fact this causing a unconstitutional war , one side say they protecting the other being force to jail or long prison sentences or forfeiture to me it clear the government intrest is to ruin and make hell of all who fail the law even as the law fails the truth or very use being lessor of punishment the the law so i would make war It is justified solution to fight the suppressor even to kill so i add a star to the record every time a author-tie dies so far I have a Hugh amount of stars paste on the war of honor

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