The Times West Virginian

August 14, 2013

Ever-expanding prison population wisely addressed by ‘Smart on Crime’

Times West Virginian

— It’s called the “Smart on Crime” initiative.

And U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder’s proposed changes in federal sentencing policies — which target long mandatory terms that have flooded the nation’s prisons with low-level drug offenders and diverted crime-fighting dollars that could be better spent — could mark one of the most significant changes in the way the federal criminal justice system handles drug cases since the government declared a war on drugs in the 1980s.

Holder’s plans, which he announced Monday, started with federal prosecutors being instructed to stop charging many nonviolent drug defendants with offenses that carry mandatory minimum sentences.

The next step is to work with a bipartisan group in Congress to give judges greater discretion in sentencing.

Holder also wants to divert people convicted of low-level offenses to drug treatment and community-service programs and expand a prison program to allow for release of some elderly, nonviolent offenders.

The ultimate goal? Reducing the ever-expanding prison population.

It addresses a major concern: Federal prisons are operating at nearly 40 percent above capacity, and the prison population has grown by almost 800 percent since 1980. Almost half the inmates are serving time for drug-related crimes.

And as The Associated Press reported, the impact of “Smart On Crime” could be significant.

Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, a private group involved in research and policy reform of the criminal justice system, said blacks and Hispanics probably would benefit the most from the changes. He said blacks account for about 30 percent of federal drug convictions each year and Hispanics account for 40 percent.

Of course, Holder’s changes would only apply to the federal level. He said some issues are best handled at the state or local level, and he has directed federal prosecutors across the country to develop locally tailored guidelines for determining when federal charges should be filed and when they should not.

He said 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.

Currently, about 225,000 state prisoners are incarcerated for drug offenses, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. One national survey from 15 years ago by the Sentencing Project found that 58 percent of state drug offenders had no history of violence or high-level drug dealing.

Holder’s proposal was met with widespread praise, ranging from Laura W. Murphy, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington Legislative Office, who said the attorney general “is taking crucial steps to tackle our bloated federal mass-incarceration crisis,” to Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who said he was encouraged by the Obama administration’s view that mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenders promote injustice and do not serve public safety.

We like the proposal Holder has set in motion. It makes sense to be tough on crime, but it’s just as important to be smart on crime.