In 1979, 44 percent of people convicted in federal court of felony-level offenses were sent to prison. By 2008, the number rose to 91 percent, an unprecedented increase resulting from political initiatives to get tougher on crime, particularly with the advent of minimum-mandatory sentences. The nation has come to the realization that this trend has to be reversed. Fortunately, sentencing reform efforts at both the federal and state level are now gaining momentum.
The latest incarnation of those efforts is a newly announced diversion program for federal convicts in Utah that will help them avoid a prison sentence if they successfully complete a rigorous program that emphasizes restitution and rehabilitation. The program is called the Utah Alternatives to Conviction Track and it outlines a series of intensive steps on a ladder a defendant who enters a guilty plea can take to avoid prison. It mirrors a successful program begun a few years ago in California and is similar to a variety of diversion programs authorized by state courts in Utah and elsewhere.
It also comes at a time when there is bipartisan recognition of the need to ratchet back minimum-mandatory sentence guidelines and give federal judges more discretion in how best to sentence defendants, particularly those convicted of nonviolent drug crimes. Utah Sen. Mike Lee is a sponsor of important legislation aimed in that direction. These efforts reflect a growing recognition that policies leading to a skyrocketing rate of incarceration have not had a proportionate impact on increasing public safety. In the last 40 years, our rate of imprisonment has grown 350 percent while the population grew 33 percent. Our rate of incarceration is at least five times higher than that of most European countries, while our crime rates are not much different.
The new federal courts diversion program, along with changes in sentencing guidelines on the state level, are creating mechanisms to deal with people prone to crime in ways other than locking them up. The federal program outlines narrow criteria for entry into the post-plea diversion system and is set up to identify offenders who pose the lowest risk to public safety. There is minimal risk the program will allow high-level white-collar criminals or drug kingpins to avoid incarceration. Because it is limited in how many defendants may enter, it is not likely to take a big bite out of the burgeoning problem of overcrowded prisons. But it is a necessary step in the right direction.
We are fortunate to be at a time when we have chosen to actively correct a flawed calculus in the relationship between crime and punishment. More reasonable sentencing standards and the adoption of diversion programs will bring a measure of common sense and compassion to a system that has for too long been predicated on the imperative to punish behavior, as opposed to redirecting it.