Thinking About Alternatives to Incarceration

The U.S. Sentencing Commission has decided its finally time to think about how to keep people out of prison

Federal Judge Ricardo Hinojosa
Federal Judge Ricardo Hinojosa

The U.S. Sentencing Commission has signaled that it will consider alternatives to incarceration in meetings next year, reports the Wall Street Journal.

The USSC was created in 1984 to, as its name so nicely implies, recommend sentencing ranges for federal crimes. Now, with the U.S. prison population at an all-time high, with some 2.3 million behind bars, 200,000 of them in the federal system, the Commission dropped notice in the Federal Register that it will take up alts to incarceration. "We're going to be looking at what might fit at the starting point, before somebody is sent to prison," Commission chair, and McAllen federal court judge, Ricardo Hinojosa told the WSJ.

The progressive move seems sure to trigger a battle with the Dept. of Justice, which hasn't exactly embraced previous Commission projects – as with last year's Commission decision to reset sentencing guidelines for crack cocaine offenses to bring to an end the so-called 100-to-one sentencing disparity with powder cocaine. The Commission for years had urged Congress to make the changes before finally taking steps to do so on its own. (Commission decisions take effect unless Congress votes to oppose them.) The DOJ went into major hand-wringing mode when the Commission then took the decision a step further, making the sentencing changes retroactive. Despite DOJ warnings, it doesn't appear any backlash has emerged, in the form of crazed crackheads retaking urban streets as the DOJ had predicted.

Still, the DOJ isn't so sure about the Commission's new mission: While they're interested in the use of monitoring technology – like GPS, increasingly being used on probationers – "we do not believe the use of alternatives [to incarceration] should be expanded without further rigorous research showing their effectiveness in promoting public safety," DOJ spokeswoman Laura Sweeney told the daily.

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