Thursday, August 03, 2006

Effective Policy or Media Response?

One of the biggest problems in corrections and sentencing policy is the felt need of policymakers to respond to heinous crimes heavily covered by news media by overturning existing laws and policy, despite demonstrated effectiveness. A story today in UT shows the phenomenon in action again. A few days ago a 5-year-old little girl was viciously killed and now legislators there want to do away or at least tamper with a indeterminate sentencing policy that has actually resulted in more child sex offense convictions and more offenders being sent away than an older system that the legislators now apparently want to return to because it would allow them to make a statement about this single case. It's counterintuitive to most people to think that increasing punishments for child sex abusers leads to fewer convictions and lesser sentences, but practitioners who pay attention know it's true. It's tough to get charges pressed, much less a sentence applied, to "Uncle Joe" or "Father Pete" or "Coach Finklewitz." Application of mandatories scares off exactly what you want to achieve, but doing nothing makes policymakers look impotent, at least in their eyes. So, in the name of avenging this poor girl's murder, far more harm is virtually certain to occur.

A sad legacy. But common these days.

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