In early August, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced a new and immediately effective Justice Department policy that will reduce severe mandatory sentences for low-level, nonviolent drug offenders who are not associated with drug cartels, gangs or large-scale organizations. Speaking to the American Bar Association in San Francisco, Holder pointed out that though the U.S. is “coldly efficient in jailing criminals,” it “cannot prosecute or incarcerate its way [to becoming safer].”
The new Justice Department policy is part of a comprehensive prison reform package that includes policies to reduce sentences for nonviolent elderly inmates and seek alternatives to prison for nonviolent criminals. “Although incarceration has a role to play in our justice system, widespread incarceration at the federal, state and local levels is both ineffective and unsustainable,” Holder commented before going on to specifically question excessive imprisonment associated with our nation’s War on Drugs.
Although the U.S. is home to a mere 5% of the world’s population, our nation’s prisons hold almost 25% of the world’s prisoners. Since 1980, the federal prison population has increased by over 800% while the nation’s population has only grown by roughly one-third. Officials attributed most of that increase to mandatory minimum sentences for drugs imposed in the 1980’s at the outset of the so-called “War on Drugs”. For example, under the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, a minimum sentence of five years without parole was imposed for possession of five grams of crack cocaine, while the same sentence was mandated for possession of 500 grams of powder cocaine, leading to higher levels of more severe incarceration in poorer communities. With more than 219,000 inmates in the federal prison system, the Justice Department has confirmed that prisons are operating at 40% over capacity. Of course, with the increase in mandatory minimum sentences, incarceration costs have skyrocketed, reaching over $80 billion in 2010. With almost half of federal inmates incarcerated for drug-related crimes, it is clear that our current drug policies are only adding unnecessary strain and expense to our taxpayers and justice system. Attorney General Holder was enthusiastic that the new Justice Department policies “will ultimately save our country billions of dollars.”