A prosecuting attorney in Little Rock last Monday said he wanted Kevin Elders sentenced to 10 years in prison. Mr. Elders, who is the son of U.S. Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders, was convicted of selling one-eighth of an ounce of cocaine to an undercover policeman. This is exactly the sort of unthinking, irrational and harsh law enforcement and administration of justice that have needlessly, recklessly tripled the nation's state and federal prison population in the past decade and a half -- without reducing the amount of violent crime or the public's fear of violent criminals.
Today's prisons are groaning from overcrowding. Judges are sending too many men (mostly) to prison for such crimes as that of Mr. Elders. So many, in fact, that the true threats to society -- the dangerous criminals who commit repeat acts of violence against people or repeatedly steal property and money -- are having their sentences reduced in order to make room. It hasn't come to this yet: a Willie Horton out so a Kevin Elders can go in. But only because of billions of dollars spent on new prisons. More billions are proposed in numerous state budgets and in the pending crime bill in Congress.
The Department of Justice released a report last month which showed that as of the end of 1993, there were 948,881 prison inmates. At the same rate of growth as last year, the 1 million ceiling will be breached sometime this fall. In 1980, the prison population was 329,891. Drug arrests are the driving force behind this phenomenal increase. About half the prison population increase since 1980 is due to drug arrests. In 1980, 19 of each 1,000 arrested adults in drug cases went to prison. Now 104 do. About a third of all new commitments now are for drug offenses. It was 7 percent in 1980.
If sentencing in such cases as drug possession and low-level drug dealing were directed to non-prison alternatives, states would not be letting murderers and career thieves out before they served their full sentences. The same can be said of numerous other non-violent crimes. It is clearly time to take a comprehensive look at sentencing philosophy in America. It is one thing -- and a good thing -- to put the violence-prone and the careerists behind bars till they are too old to threaten society, but it is wasteful and counter-productive to use prison space for relatively minor disturbers of the peace.