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A dialogue on prison reform

BLACK MEN IN America have a one-in-three chance of landing in prison in their lifetime. That chilling pronouncement and the fact that one in three black men in their 20s is either imprisoned, jailed, on probation or on parole cries out for a national dialogue on prison reform.

Those who think otherwise should consider these statistics: American prisons hold 2.1 million people, about a quarter of the world's prison population. It costs more than $40 billion a year to house prisoners in the United States. Whites accounted for 71 percent of youths arrested for crimes nationally in 1997, but only 37 percent of those who were detained.

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Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy began the conversation a year ago, ticking off many of those same disturbing points. And now a new report on America's "lock 'em up" sentencing policies offers even more proof that the criminal justice system has veered off course. The crushing weight of mandatory sentencing policies has incarcerated swaths of society, devoured great sums of money and devastated communities and families along the way.

And America isn't necessarily safer because of it. The report, issued by a special commission of the American Bar Association, calls for an end to mandatory sentences and promotes diversion programs for less-serious offenses - positions this newspaper has strongly endorsed in the past.

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The ABA report provides compelling evidence for reforming the way we punish criminals: racial disparity in sentences, the adverse impact of mandatory sentences on first-time offenders, the dearth of rehabilitation programs in prison. They affect not only the incarcerated but also the families they leave behind, as generations of children grow up without parents.

Rectifying that tear in the fabric of America poses enormous challenges that require enormous amounts of human and financial capital. But tackling this issue has everything to do with the future of this country. California imprisons about 160,000 a year at an annual cost of $27,000 per prisoner. Compare that with the $5,000 that state school systems spend to educate a child each year.

Are Californians getting their money's worth? Obviously not. And neither are many Americans across this country. The ABA report comes as many states, reeling from budget deficits, are reconsidering their sentencing and prison policies. California, for one, has an initiative on its November ballot that would restrict to violent offenders its wide-ranging three-strikes-and-you're-out law. A recent poll found 76 percent of Californians are for it, about the same percentage that approved the law in 1994. The pendulum is definitely swinging back toward a reasonable approach in sentencing.

Closer to home, Maryland has been on the right side of this issue. State public safety chief Mary Ann Saar's plan to divert nonviolent offenders into treatment and community programs will free up state dollars to support those services and leave Maryland's prisons for the most incorrigible offenders. And that's how it should be, for the public's safety and the future of the state.


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