The nation got tough on crime, and crime went down. Minimum mandatory sentences locked so many people away, especially on drug charges, that the prison industry had itself a building spree across the country.
And the cost to accomplish it? We’re still paying. It costs us $80 billion a year to keep more than 1.5 million people in state and federal prisons. And that’s just the financial hit.
As drug trafficking and addiction fueled violent crime, especially in the 1970s, tougher sentencing guidelines were the natural legislative pushback. And once state and federal lawmakers got started, there was no turning back.
Until last week. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced a new tack in how federal prosecutors charge low-level, nonviolent drug crimes, the types of offenses that have swept up desperate addicts, relatively harmless hustlers and even those who didn’t know they were involved in a drug crime. There’s many a girlfriend who couldn’t prove that she didn’t know there were a couple of kilos in the trunk of her boyfriend’s car. Though they might not have deserved a pass, so many of them have been imprisoned for long terms wholly out of proportion to their offenses because sentencing has become a numbers game.
Under Mr. Holder’s new guidelines, prosecutors will take into account a defendant’s criminal history and gang ties when pressing charges. In addition, the amount of drugs can be omitted from the charging documents. Federal minimum-mandatory sentencing guidelines are tied to the quantity of drugs found.
He also wants to boost alternatives such as drug-treatment programs. All good measures, all decades overdue — and just a first step.
For some years, states have been out in front of the Department of Justice, taking measures to relieve prison overcrowding, stop the revenue drain and step back from ruining the lives of people who warrant a second chance.
In Florida, drug courts, initiated in Miami-Dade County, diverted first-time drug offenders from jail, got them into rehab — and became a model for the nation to follow.
Last year, data analyzed by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse found, as reported by the Associated Press, that in the 10 court districts in Florida with the most drug-case sentences after trial, “Republican-appointed judges assigned stiffer average sentences in five districts, but Democratic appointees gave longer penalties in the other five.” One encouraging interpretation is that judges are taking time to evaluate each case, each defendant, not sentencing with a broad brush.
This, too, is what Mr. Holder is seeking.
For all the high-fiving and “it’s about time” sentiments, Americans must remember that none of Mr. Holder’s initiatives are enshrined in law. They are open to interpretation by prosecutors across the country, which itself, could introduce sentencing inconsistencies. And once Mr. Holder leaves office, all bets are off.
The responsibility lies with Congress. And from the bipartisan support that Mr. Holder’s changes received, lawmakers should plunge in, not just reconsidering minimum mandatory sentences, but also making sure sentences are based on empirical evidence of what works, not an arbitrary point system. This is the right time for lawmakers to act in the name of fairness and sentencing sanity — 2014 elections not withstanding.
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