August 7, 2008

Imprisoning LeFevre a costly, senseless ritual

Guest essay by Daniel Macallair*

Few examples better illustrate the vindictive nature of the American criminal justice system than the case of Susan LeFevre.

On April 24, LeFevre was arrested by federal marshals at her San Diego home 32 years after she walked away from a minimum security prison for nonviolent offenders in Michigan. At the time of her escape, she had just begun serving a 10- to 20-year sentence after she and a male companion pleaded guilty to charges of attempting to sell $200 worth of heroin to an undercover police officer.

Despite having no criminal record, the 19-year-old college student faced a crusading judge and the first wave of harsh drug laws. For a crime that may have resulted in probation in a neighboring jurisdiction, LeFevre received the maximum possible prison sentence.

Now a 52-year-old law-abiding mother and housewife, LeFevre has returned to Michigan where justice and corrections officials have stridently vowed that she will face the wrath of the criminal justice system.

While walking away from a prison sentence is never justified, the case raises troubling questions about the American criminal justice system and the purpose of imprisonment.

According to a recent study by the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, the U.S. has the highest imprisonment rate in the world. With just 5 percent of the world's population, we have 25 percent of the world's prisoners.

Even more startling, the U.S. jail and prison population for drug offenses (458,131) exceeds the European Union's jail and prison population for all offenses (356,626).

The reason why the United States imprisons 740 out of every 100,000 citizens compared to Europe's rate of 110 per 100,000 is the size of its prison establishment and the acceptance of imprisonment as a sentence for both violent and nonviolent offenders. Other countries choose to use prison sentences very sparingly on the understanding that prisons are cruel and brutalizing places that should be reserved for only the dangerous. Instead, European countries prefer to rely on penalties such as day fines that are tied to the individual's income....

LeFevre's imprisonment will cost the state of Michigan more than $300,000 during the next 10 years. This does not include any additional periods of imprisonment imposed for her earlier escape. Many in the prison establishment will argue that requiring LeFevre to serve her sentence is necessary to demonstrate the criminal justice system's resolve and to deter others from similar actions. Others argue that special treatment for LeFevre cannot be justified since special considerations are not extended to other inmates.

Effective criminal justice systems measure their success by the number of people successfully returned to the community, not the number of inmates maintained in prison. Incarcerating individuals such as LeFevre who pose no danger to society and who are forced to leave behind children and spouses simply renders her punishment a costly and senseless ritual.

In this instance, society would be best served by allowing LeFevre to return home, leave the past behind and continue her productive life.

*Reprinted with the written permission of the author. Originally posted on the Saginaw (Michigan) News online edition. Daniel Macallair is executive director of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice and teaches criminal justice at San Francisco State University.

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