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 on Monday.
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 U.S.’s not-unjustified claim to high moral standing, that the U.S. has 5 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of its prisoners.
Current policy also has disproportionately affected minorities and disrupted communities.
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 Georgia, Texas and Arkansas, who are 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 much better if Holder had taken the legislative route to achieve the changes in question. Such unilateral administrative decrees have become all too familiar in the Obama era.
Too familiar as well has been the administration’s unwillingness to work honestly with Congress and openly with the American people.
Still, Holder’s proposal has the backing from across the political spectrum, from the Huffington Post on the left to Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia on the right, and deserves implementation.