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Judges need more leeway when sentencing violent offenders

Texas, like the rest of the country, has a mass incarceration problem. In 2008, when the issue was at its peak, there were 1,000 inmates per every 100,000 adults in the U.S. In an effort to drive that number down, many jurisdictions began offering more incarceration alternatives for low-level offenders. As a result, the U.S. incarceration rate fell to 830 inmates per 100,000 adults.

While this is a step in the right direction, experts say that much more needs to be done. In 2018, Congress passed the FIRST STEP Act, which reduces sentences for nonviolent offenders convicted in the federal court system. This is helpful, but it does nothing to reduce the number of inmates produced by state courts.

In order to reduce the number of inmates in non-federal prisons, experts say that judges should be given more leeway when dealing with violent offenders. This does not mean that violent offenders should be dumped back on the street to endanger the public. Instead, it means that more should be done to differentiate between truly violent offenders and those who have committed a one-time violent act. For example, "simple assault" is a violent crime charge that can result from two friends getting into a shoving match, which is quite different from a pre-meditated assault intended to do great bodily harm. In addition, some offenders have mental health issues that may respond better to treatment than to prison. For instance, New York's Brooklyn Mental Health Court offers long-term cognitive behavioral therapy to certain felony offenders with mental illness. As a result, the court's re-conviction rate is 29 percent lower than that of traditional courts.

Texas residents charged with violent crimes could contact a criminal defense attorney for help. The attorney could investigate the case and work to get the charges reduced or dismissed. Legal counsel could also push for incarceration alternatives during sentencing.

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