The price of punishment

According to the Connecticut Department of Corrections, the state spends almost $600 million a year on the incarceration of only slightly over 19,000 inmates.

Every single day the state spends a total of about 1.6 million dollars to house inmates in its 18 correctional facilities.

That breaks down to a cost of about $460 per year for each of the state's approximate 1.3 million households.

Connecticut's prison population has risen drastically in recent years. Along with the growth in the number of inmates, the cost of housing them has risen as well. Currently it costs approximately $26,955 to house each inmate per year. Each day the state spends $73.85 providing for the inmates. However these figures do not include the money inmates spend on their own incarceration.

Non-indigent prisoners or prisoners that have more than five dollars in their inmate trust fund accounts are expected to purchase all necessities for themselves through the DOC operated commissary. These supplies include any toiletries, footwear, and other provisions.

Inmates are also required to pay a three-dollar-co-pay for any medical visits or post secondary educational programs they participate in.

Each year DOC commissary services make roughly $11 million selling products to the prisons' non-indigent contingency.

But in light of the recent budget debacle, Connecticut cannot afford to continue this type of spending on its prison system. The state has asked the DOC to trim nearly $6 million from its budget. According to a recent article in the Hartford Courant the department could lose 164 employees due to the cuts.

In an article by Aaron Ment, the chief court administrator of the state's Judicial Branch, it is suggested that alternate forms of incarceration would not only be more successful in reforming inmates but would also lighten the state's heavy fiscal burden. As it now stands, the DOC acts as a veritable vacuum into which tax dollars are sucked up into oblivion. Like Enron, the Connecticut DOC is an investment that yields no return.

According to Ment, the average cost for placing an inmate in an alternate incarceration program is around $5,000 per year, $22,000 less than the annual cost of housing an inmate in prison.

One way the DOC could limit spending would be to address the overcrowding of the state's prisons. In recent years Connecticut's prisons have been operating well over capacity. This past year, the New Haven Community Correctional Institution on Whalley Avenue had hundreds of inmates sleeping on its gymnasium floor.

Due to budget cuts, the newly completed $35 million project creating 600 new beds at the MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution in Suffield may not be able to reach expectations. MacDougall-Walker will not be able to become what prison officials envisioned due to the inability to properly staff the institution.

The project was to be a means to address the glaring overcrowding issue, however the current economic situation faced by the state reinforces the problem. You cannot just keep building more and more prisons.

Each year the state spends more dollars on corrections and less on education. Maybe these people should be educated by teachers in classrooms before we deem it necessary to correct them in a prison cell.

This phenomenon is experienced more so in urban areas where the percentage of youths incarcerated increases each year. Someone needs to teach these kids that there are other options than resorting to crime. But instead of giving these kids chances we give them prison stripes.

In the past year the state's prison population has leaped from about 17,900 to 19,500. This is due in large part to "truth in sentencing laws," harsher penalties for many offenses, elimination of "good time" credits, narrowed eligibility for alternative incarceration programs and more stringent parole guidelines.

But perhaps the best way to eliminate overcrowding would be to reevaluate laws enacting mandatory minimum sentences.

A mandatory minimum sentence is a sentence that may not be reduced by a court under legislative authority. That means that where a judge normally has discretion as to choose a suitable punishment, taking into account mitigating factors specific to a certain incident, the judge's hands become tied.

The mandatory sentence diminishes the judge's inherent role, to dole out a sentence to each individual suspect, befitting of the circumstances surrounding the crime committed. Under a mandatory minimum sentence the punishment cannot fit the crime.

Historically, mandatory minimum sentences are a rarity. It was not until the second half of the last century that mandatory minimum sentences became common practice.

First introduced as a response to the rise in drug activity, legislation soon latched on to mandatory minimums as a way of portraying a "tough" approach to dealing with crime.

By the 21st Century, there were numerous mandatory minimum sentences on the books for a wide range of crimes.

The laws themselves have been thoroughly unscientific. The lengths of the mandated sentences often are not based on any empirical study, but rather chosen to seem strict.

But in a country that prides itself on celebrating the individuality and diversity of its people, it seems unjust to take incidents, the majority of them isolated, and characterize them as being the same.

People from all sectors of the criminal justice system have decried mandatory minimum sentences. As early as 1974, the American Bar Association said in its criminal justice policy, that it opposes, in principle, legislatively or administratively imposed mandatory minimum prison sentences.

Chief Justice William Rehnquist called mandatory minimum sentences a good example of the law of unintended consequences. In 2002 Supreme Court Justice J. Breyer stated that mandatory minimums generally deny the judge the legal power to depart downward, no matter how unusual the special circumstances that call for leniency… they transfer sentencing power to prosecutors, who can determine sentences through the charges they decide to bring…they are rarely based upon empirical study.

Prior to leaving his final term, Michigan Governor John Engler signed a bill eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders. Before this action, Michigan was regarded as having the strictest drug laws in the nation.

Recently, many other states including Idaho, Maryland, and New York have begun to rethink mandatory minimum sentences as well.

Here in Connecticut, State Legislature passed an act concerning mandatory minimum sentences. The new act allows judges to deviate from the application of a mandatory minimum sentence, but only in cases involving first time drug offenders.

The repeal of mandatory minimum sentencing policies would not only better serve the taxpayers and the state's fiscal situation, but it would create a more "just" justice system.

Legislators need to come up with an "outside of the box" approach to dealing with the current deficit. And we, as a society need to take a more proactive approach toward dealing with other people. Instead of giving up, we should seek to improve our collective existence.

Punishment should not be handed out in predetermined increments. As Judge Leon Higginbotham once said: We must remember we are not widgets or robots, but human beings. Defendants should be sentenced within the spectrum of what most judges would consider fair and reasonable.

We're not saying we should not be tough on crime, But simply that the punishment should fit the crime