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Northwest Voices

Seattle Times letters to the editor

April 9, 2009 at 5:00 PM

Criminal-justice budget cuts

Refocus money on people, not jails

This is not the first time criminal-justice cuts have been forced as the result of state financial woes [“Tough times take bite out of criminal justice,” page one, April 9]. It will not be the last.

Crime, punishment and our social response is a pendulum. In flush times, we pass three-strikes laws thinking we will be safer (believing we can afford the horrendous cost). In bad times, we look for ways to let people out of jail.

The real question to ask is: If these soon-to-be released offenders are not a risk to be at-large (as measured by financial criteria and general safety), what made them so dangerous in the first place?

Hundreds of years of struggle with this problem and all modern studies and calculations show the same result. The most expensive and least productive response to drug, mental-health and poverty-driven crime is full confinement. The most effective and most cost-productive response is community-based work, education and retraining.

My conclusion is that some really bad people need to be isolated from the community to keep the rest of us safe — people who are unable to control their urges and kill or hurt children; people who are violent with no hope of change.

Most people in the criminal-justice system are not in that violent category. Most are caught up in generations of a lifestyle where low-level crime is the accepted norm. It is these people who drain the resources of the community.

My hope is that now, when we are asked to re-evaluate our use of limited resources, we will make the change for a broader, more socially beneficial response to crime. Don’t spend hundreds of millions on new buildings that give nothing back. Instead, spend tens of millions on people. Schools, community centers and community work programs are

cheaper than jails.

Community service helps everyone. Jails for low-level offenders help no one.

— Walter Peale, Seattle

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