Attorney General Eric Holder's announcement Monday that he will direct prosecutors to scale back long prison sentences for low-level and nonviolent drug offenders is a significant step toward a more rational national drug policy. Holder's shift reflects a growing bipartisan consensus that America's overemphasis on prison time is too costly on many fronts. The bold move will bring positive change to the way drug crimes are prosecuted, but it's not enough to end America's destructive incarceration binge. That will take putting an end to mandatory minimum sentences on the federal and state level.
To show how heavily the criminal justice system at the federal, state and local level relies on incarceration, Holder laid out the grim statistics in a speech before the American Bar Association on Monday. The United States has only 5 percent of the world's population but 25 percent of its prisoners, Holder said. Since 1980, America's population has grown by a third but the prison population has increased almost 800 percent, costing $80 billion in 2010 alone. "And it comes with human and moral costs that are impossible to calculate," Holder said.
Even conservative states such as Texas and Arkansas have embraced strategies to lower incarceration rates as a cost-cutting move. Approaches typically involve diverting low-level drug offenders from prison into treatment or investing in more job training programs — progressive criminal justice strategies that have been proven to reduce recidivism. Florida has successfully experimented with drug courts and work-release programs that can save millions of dollars on new prisons.
Holder is telling the nation's federal prosecutors to avoid draconian mandatory minimum laws by not listing drug quantities in cases where there is no violence and the accused is not a leader of a criminal organization, among other criteria. Indiscriminately applied mandatory minimums, Holder rightly noted, "do not serve public safety" and "have had a destabilizing effect on particular communities, largely poor and of color."
Under mandatory minimums largely adopted in the 1980s, Congress systematically took discretion away from judges, who were seen as too soft, and handed it to prosecutors. As a consequence, the federal prison system now runs at nearly 40 percent above capacity and, of more than 219,000 people in federal prison, nearly half are there for drug-related offenses. Holder's plan would turn that prosecutorial power into a tool for rational leniency. He also would expand "compassionate release" for nonviolent offenders who are elderly and have served a substantial proportion of their time.
Such sensible reforms are refreshing, but they should have been implemented long ago. One-size-fits-all mandatory minimum sentences have always been more about what's good for politics than for reasonable punishment or rational spending, and Congress should repeal them.