Saying it is time for a more pragmatic approach to crime and punishment, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder Monday announced a series of significant actions designed to ease overcrowding in America’s federal prisons.
Among the new policies is a plan to reduce mandatory minimum sentencing for nonviolent drug-related crimes and releasing elderly prisoners.
He also indicated that federal prosecutors would no longer pursue low-level drug offenders as part of the recalibration of the American criminal justice system.
The proposals were cheered by both liberals and conservatives and make sense when you consider that federal prisons operate at 40 percent above capacity. The reality is that the federal government is broke and cannot afford the costs associated with housing more prisoners — especially nonviolent offenders.
We do need to be smarter about sentencing and finding alternatives to prison like the drug courts that are making an impact here in Franklin County and across the state.
But a little perspective is in order on the new policies. First, the vast majority of the U.S. prison population — 86 percent — are housed in state prisons.
Furthermore, U.S. attorneys prosecute about 5 percent of all crime committed in this country and the reality is they rarely, if ever, prosecute low-level drug offenses. That is left to state prosecutors.
Another reality is that almost every offender in every state prison is there for a violent or sexual offense, or for committing repeated offenses. That is because state and local prosecutors, judges and defense attorneys already utilize a number of programs and alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent, first-time offenders. They include diversion programs, re-entry programs, drug counseling, probation, stayed sentences and drug courts.
The states have been leading on this issue for years.