This week U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced a major change in drug conviction-related federal sentencing. Under the new plan, mandatory minimum sentences will be dropped in several types of cases where the offence is non-violent and the offender has no gang or cartel ties. This reverses a 30-year path of indiscriminate mass incarceration —- which led to the United States having the largest prison population in world history.
Some will decry this move as typical liberal soft-on-crime policy. The more reasoned observer understands that the old ways had created an unsustainable penal culture, predicated on a faulty assumption about deterrence.
“We need to ensure that incarceration is used to punish, deter and rehabilitate - not merely to convict, warehouse and forget,” Holder said in a speech to the American Bar Association in San Francisco on Monday. He went on to state, “A vicious cycle of poverty, criminality and incarceration traps too many Americans and weakens too many communities.”
We have ample evidence of this in our own community. Far too many children are being raised in households where a parent is incarcerated. This situation serves to undermine those children’s futures by perpetuating poverty and normalizing the imprisonment as a part of family life.
According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, 47 percent of U.S. prison inmates have been incarcerated for drug offences.
The BOP further reports that federal prisons are operating at nearly 40 percent over designed capacity and hold more than 219,000 inmates. In addition to the federal prison population, 9 million to 10 million are incarcerated in local jails each year.
With this as backdrop Holder advocated sending people convicted of low-level offences to drug treatment and community service programs instead of prison.
“Such legislation will ultimately save our country billions of dollars while keeping us safe,” Holder argues.
There is already some evidence to support this contention. Our western neighbor, Texas —- not known as a bastion of reserve in matters of criminal justice —- has already introduced programs designed to limit incarceration of low-level offenders.
Holder also told the ABA that 17 states have directed money away from prison construction and toward programs and services such as treatment and supervision that are designed to reduce the problem of repeat offenders.
Predictably, there are plenty of skeptics regarding the plan’s chances of coming to fruition. William Otis, who spent 18 years as a federal prosecutor, told politico.com, “It’s less than meets the eye. It’s not now and has never been the case that all low-level drug offenders are being swept up and charged with minimum mandatory sentences … It’s actually not going to change the on-the-ground reality very much at all.”
Even so, similar initiatives have garnered bi-partisan support. Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Paul, R-Ky., have sponsored legislation aimed at giving federal judges more discretion in applying mandatory minimums to certain drug offenders.
Efforts similar to those proposed by Holder have been employed here in Arkansas to the tune 1400 fewer prisoners housed in ADC facilities. Given that the average cost of incarcerating a person can sometimes exceed $30,000 per year, this makes sound financial sense.
While these kinds of things don’t do much for the more legalistic and punitive among us, they hold promise for quelling our social addiction to incarceration.