The US government took the first tentative steps
toward tackling its 1.5m-strong prison population on Monday by
announcing that minor drug dealers would be spared the mandatory
minimum sentences that have previously locked up many for a
decade or more.
Reversing years of toughening political rhetoric in Washington,
attorney general Eric
that levels of incarceration at federal, state and local levels
had become both "ineffective and unsustainable."
The Department of Justice will now instruct prosecutors to
side-step federal sentencing rules by not recording the amount
of drugs found
on non-violent dealers not associated with larger gangs or
"Our system is in many ways broken," Holder told the American
Bar Association in San Francisco. "As the so-called war on drugs
enters its fifth decade we need to ask whether it has been fully
effective and usher in a new approach."
"Too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long and
for no truly good law enforcement reason," he said, adding later:
"We cannot simply prosecute or incarcerate our way to becoming a
Holder also announced a review into sentencing disparities,
pointing to a recent study showing black male offenders received
sentences nearly 20% longer than whites convicted of similar
crimes. "This isn't just unacceptable, it is shameful," said
Since Richard Nixon declared the "war on drugs" in 1971, US
prison numbers have soared to account for 25% of all the world's
prisoners even though it has only 5% of the world's population.
Drug-related offences drive the vast majority of this, and
people convicted of conspiring to sell 5kg of cocaine will
currently receive a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence.
But the US total of 1,571,013 prisoners has begun to edge down
in the last three yearsamid
falling crime rates, and several recent legislative attempts
to reform sentencing policy have led to hopes that the era of
mass incarceration may be coming to an end.
Mark Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project, an
advocacy group for reform, described Holders proposals as a
"significant development" which he hoped would stimulate debate
and effect real change.
"Since the War on Drugs, there have been huge developments in
drug courts and drug treatment but mandatory sentencing has
acted against those. This represents one way to open that up a
bit and increase the potential scope of other options."
Around half of the 200,000 people in federal prisons are locked
up for drug offences and about 60% are sentenced under mandatory
sentencing provisions, according to Mauer. Around 45% of the
25,000 people incarcerated every year for drug offences are
lower level offenders such as street level dealers and couriers.
Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance,
also welcomed Holder's proposals but said that they could have
been put in place earlier to avoid the unjust suffering of
thousands of Americans and their families as the prison
population continued to grow.
Nadelmann said: "There's no good reason why the Obama
have done something like this during his first term – and tens,
perhaps hundreds of thousands of Americans have suffered
unjustly as a result of their delay."
"But that said, President Obama and Attorney General Holder
deserve credit for stepping out now, and for doing so in a
fairly decisive way."
Nadelmann said that the national politics of the issue has
shifted significantly recently, enabling support for Holder's
Republican governors and Senators, such as Rand Paul of Kentucky
and Mike Lee of Utah, have worked to allow judges to depart from
mandatory minimum sentencing when circumstances merit and
bipartisan bills are being introduced on the issue.
Nadelmman said: "Holder gives credit to Red states like Texas
and Arkansas, while California and New York have decreased
incarceration to a greater extend. But it was politically wise
to do so."
Holder also announced other proposals to curb America's vast
prison population, including compassionate early release for
elderly inmates who are no longer viewed as dangerous and will
promote drug-treatment programs as prison alternatives.
"We must never stop being tough on crime. But we must also be
smarter on crime," he said. "Although incarceration has a role
to play in our justice system, widespread incarceration at the
federal, state and local levels is both ineffective and
Aggressive enforcement of federal criminal laws is necessary,
but "we cannot simply prosecute or incarcerate our way to
becoming a safer nation", Holder said. "Today, a vicious cycle
of poverty, criminality and incarceration traps too many
Americans and weakens too many communities. However, many
aspects of our criminal justice system may actually exacerbate
this problem, rather than alleviate it."
"We need to ensure that incarceration is used to punish, deter
and rehabilitate – not merely to convict, warehouse and forget,"
said the attorney general.
Holder said mandatory minimum sentences "breed disrespect for
the system. When applied indiscriminately, they do not serve
public safety. They have had a disabling effect on communities.
And they are ultimately counterproductive."
Holder said new approaches – which he is calling the "Smart On
Crime" initiative – are the result of a Justice Department
review he launched early this year.
The attorney general said some issues are best handled at the
state or local level and said 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.
"By targeting the most serious offenses, prosecuting the most
dangerous criminals, directing assistance to crime 'hot spots,'
and pursuing new ways to promote public safety, deterrence,
efficiency and fairness – we can become both smarter and tougher
on crime," Holder said.
The attorney general 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.
In Kentucky, legislation has reserved prison beds for the most
serious offenders and refocused resources on community
supervision. The state, Holder said, is projected to reduce its
prison population by more than 3,000 over the next 10 years,
saving more than $400m.
He also cited investments in drug treatment in Texas for
non-violent offenders and changes to parole policies which he
said brought about a reduction in the prison population of more
than 5,000 inmates last year. He said similar efforts helped
Arkansas reduce its prison population by more than 1,400. He
also pointed to Georgia, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and
Hawaii as states that have improved public safety while
preserving limited resources.
Holder also said the department is expanding a policy for
considering compassionate release for inmates facing
extraordinary or compelling circumstances, and who pose no
threat to the public. He said the expansion will include elderly
inmates who did not commit violent crimes and who have served
significant portions of their sentences.