On Monday, August 12, 2013, Attorney General Eric Holder will be presenting a speech to the American Bar Association in San Francisco. His goal is to push for lighter sentences on individuals with low-level drug charges. The reasoning behind his “Smart on Crime” initiative, which was reviewed by the Justice Department earlier this year, is to reduce overcrowding in the country’s prison system and make some fundamental change to our racially-biased criminal justice system.
The Washington Post reports that in 2010, the cost of incarceration in the nation hit $80 billion, with the prison population growing much faster than the U.S. population. In the United States, the Federal Prisons operate 40% above capacity, housing 219,000 inmates. Half of this prison population is serving time for drugs for which many are low-level, non-violent drug offenders.
The major federal sentencing changes that Holder will address in his speech will include dropping the use of mandatory minimum sentencing in certain non-violent drug convicts who pose no threat to society, accelerating the release of non-violent elderly inmates who have already served a significant portion of their sentence, leaving more offenses to the State courts to deal with, and working with Congress to pass bi-partisan sentencing reform.
Mandatory minimum sentencing aimed at low-level, non-violent drug offenders with no ties to gangs, cartels, large scale organizations was created in the 1980’s to support the government’s war on drugs. Holder says this type of sentencing breeds disrespect for the justice system. When applied indiscriminately, it does not serve public safety, has a disabling effect on communities and is ultimately counter-productive. In the mandatory minimum sentencing, a Judge can set the term to be served for the drug offender, which has been criticized as being unduly harsh and unfair.
For example, a person convicted of manufacturing, delivery or possession of an illegal narcotic, the punishment is based on the weight of the substance involved. The weight category does not only pertain to the pure, illegal narcotic substance, but includes any substance such as power, sugar, fillers containing the prohibited narcotic. In this respect, a person arrested with 225 pure grams of heroin would be looked at equally as a person found with 25 pure grams of heroin mixed with 200 grams of filler substance. This results in the prison system inundated not with high-level drug traffickers, but low-level dealer or drug addicts.
Holder’s stance is that “We need to ensure that incarceration is used to punish, deter and rehabilitate not merely to convict, warehouse and forget.”
In Texas, monies have gone towards drug treatment for non-violent offenders and a change in parole policies. This has reduced Texas prison population by 5,000 in 2012.
In 17 other states around the country, money has been directed away from prison construction to use as treatment and supervision in reducing repeat offender stats.
The time is now for a fundamental change in reforming the criminal justice system. It will take the leadership of the Attorney General, the President and both the Democrats and Republicans in congress to make this pivotal change for both you, me and the society in which we live.
Written By: Lisa Graziano