Show compassion -- reduce prison sentences

by Mary Ann McGivern

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One of the reasons the United States has a much bigger prison population than the rest of the world is that our prison sentences are longer, and in the last 25 years, they have grown much longer.

In Missouri in 1987, for most men convicted of murder, 12 and a half years was about what they would serve in prison. Today, they would serve 30 years.

That's even a drive-by shooting, a bar fight or shaking a child to stop it from crying, not premeditated murder, shooting a police officer, multiple murders or murder in the process of another felony, like rape or robbery. Those are the crimes that get life with or without parole or the death penalty.

I think it is too much. It is too expensive for society, for one thing. For another, these men and women are rarely a threat to public safety. Murder is the rarest of repeated crimes.

Then there's compassion. Now that's a word I don't use lobbying in the halls of the Missouri legislature.

I've begun urging the lawmakers to cut all Missouri sentences by 20 percent. For example, four years instead of five for selling crack cocaine within two blocks of a school; eight years instead of 10 for robbing a convenience store with a gun (but not using the gun); 16 years instead of 20 for using the gun but not causing death or permanent injury.

I can't see that those few extra years make any difference to the outcome. Either the criminals are redeemed or they aren't. Either the victims experience restitution or they don't. These are actions of the human heart that we can't control.

My idea wouldn't affect life sentences -- except that it might help us open our minds to the path of restorative justice, to the concepts of forgiveness and the second chance.

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