In the December 5, 2010 Pittsburgh Post Gazette newspaper, there was an article entitled “Jail Population Dropping in County and Nation”. The gist of the article was that local jail populations are declining in both Allegheny County and throughout the Country, according to a study released by the Pew Charitable Trust.

The question is why jail populations are dropping and the answer is obvious. The article indicates the high cost of keeping people in jail is the biggest reason for the drop.

How did we get in this situation? One of the biggest reasons is that laws were passed over the last twenty years dealing with certain mandatory sentences. Politicians want to get re-elected. Nothing is more popular or easier to say than a State Representative or lawmaker stating, “I am tough on crime and I voted for increased jail terms for certain offenses”. Who could argue with that? It just sounds so right. After all there is no lobby for defendants who have been convicted of certain offenses to counter this type of approach.

So what was the result of all this? Laws were then passed that severely limited and restricted what judges could or could not do to any person who was convicted of a certain offense. If the law says that a person convicted of drunk driving must do jail time, then the judge is required to sentence that individual to jail time for the offense.

The same thing happened on the federal level where U.S. District Court judges had severe limitations placed upon them on what they could sentence an individual to, who was convicted of a certain type of offense. Mandatory sentences basically took away most of the discretion of the Court to fathom a sentence that was fair under the circumstances. Just about everyone is aware of cases where a judge was required to send someone to prison for a long term as a result of a conviction on a charge like retail theft because of the individual’s prior record.

Even though the theft involved an item worth about $50, sometimes the Court had to sentence such an individual to a mandatory lengthy prison term. Again, it was because of the mandatory sentencing laws that were passed for offenses including drunk driving, robbery and certain drug offenses.

What has happened, though, since then, has been a recognition by officials that the cost of housing these individuals is just overwhelming and is leading to increases in taxes for the citizens. We simply cannot keep building more and more jails to house individuals who are convicted of certain offenses like drunk driving. Therefore, an approach was developed in Allegheny County and basically throughout the nation, to look to alternative housing for individuals who are convicted of certain types of offenses, again, like drunk driving or certain drug offenses.

House arrest is probably the biggest alternative to jail sentencing available to officials for certain mandatory crimes. In house arrest, the individual who is convicted of the crime still is sentenced to the mandatory law but instead of serving his sentence in jail, he spends it confined to his house for the period of incarceration that the sentence runs.

Additionally, in almost all cases the individual is given the opportunity to continue to work even though he is on house arrest for his crimes. This allows the person to continue to pay his fines and costs and taxes and continue to be a productive member of society.

This study points out the dilemma facing officials in dealing with crimes. Allowing alternative programs like house arrest for persons convicted of crimes, including drunk driving and possession of certain drugs, seems to be the sensible approachto go in order to balance the competing interests involved in this issue.

What do you think? We welcome comments from anyone regarding this blog.