The issue: The bad news is this enlightened policy is only as good as the next attorney general
By challenging mandatory minimum sentencing policies, Attorney General Eric Holder has taken a major step toward righting a long-standing wrong.
ENACTED A GENERATION ago, the policies take sentencing for even low-level drug crimes out of judges’ hands. Since then, the federal prison population has grown by 800 percent while the U.S. population as a whole has increased by a third, Holder told the American Bar Association last week.
The federal prisons hold 219,000 inmates and operate at nearly 40 percent above capacity, Holder said. Drug crimes, many of them nonviolent, account for nearly half of those offenders. The policies come with a big price tag: Incarceration from mandatory minimum sentencing cost $80 billion just in 2010, he added.
Holder pointed out, as have many critics of the United States’ not-unjustified claim to high moral standing, that we have 5 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of its prisoners.
Current policy also has disproportionately affected minorities and disrupted communities.
“People of color often face harsher punishments than their peers,” Holder said in his speech. He cited a recent report indicating that, in recent years, “black male offenders have received sentences nearly 20 percent longer than those imposed on white males convicted of similar crimes. This isn’t just unacceptable — it is shameful.”
HOLDER HAS ORDERED federal prosecutors to omit listing the quantities of drugs found on a first-time, nonviolent offender. He’s told them not to charge suspects with offenses that carry automatic mandatory minimums. Those and other criteria leave sentencing where it should have been all along: at the discretion of the judge.
This more lenient, more sensible sentencing approach got its start in Southern states such as Texas, Georgia and Arkansas, not otherwise known for merciful prison policies. Kentucky, by reserving prison space for serious offenders, expects to reduce its prison population by 3,000 over the next 10 years at a savings of more than $400 million, Holder said.
Indeed, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., have introduced legislation giving federal judges greater leeway in sentencing.
IT WOULD HAVE been better if Holder had taken the legislative route instead of that of prosecutorial discretion; he apparently feared easing the mandatory minimums would have fallen afoul of partisan gridlock. But that means this enlightened policy is only as good as the next attorney general.