Letter to the editor | Taxpayers need justice reform

August 20, 2013 

I agree with Wednesday’s column (“Reform criminal justice system”) supporting bipartisan efforts to reduce or mitigate laws that have imposed mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent lower-level offenses such as possessing small amounts of illegal drugs.

Voices ranging from Patrick Leahy to Rand Paul are calling for such reforms, and for good reason. According to statistics compiled at the University of Essex, America is first in the world in per capita incarceration, at 716 prisoners per 100,000 inhabitants. We edge past Cuba and Russia, which have only about 500, and easily beat England, Israel and China with less than 225. Germany has just 80.

Winning this race is extremely expensive for taxpayers. Prisoners must be housed, fed, guarded and medicated. Prisons provide some jobs to local communities, but so would the libraries, schools or highways we could have built for the money.

What does this buy us?

A young person who goes to prison might be reformed through punishment. But he or she might get worse instead, by being separated from family, work and community and by living with hardened criminals. Constructive alternatives such as drug courts, which can mandate treatment for addiction, have demonstrated effectiveness. Community service is another option.

I hope it isn’t offensive to suggest a faith-based argument for sentencing reform. Many beloved passages in the Bible portray the final judge as more interested in repentance and rehabilitation than in punishment at all costs, and tells us to treat our fellow servants likewise.

John Dziak, State College

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