In a rare bit of good news from the Justice Department, Attorney General Eric Holder announced long overdue federal criminal justice reforms that would avoid mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders:
In a major shift in criminal justice policy, the Obama administration will move on Monday to ease overcrowding in federal prisons by ordering prosecutors to omit listing quantities of illegal substances in indictments for low-level drug cases, sidestepping federal laws that impose strict mandatory minimum sentences for drug-related offenses.
Saying that “too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long and for no good law enforcement reason,” Mr. Holder is planning to justify his policy push in both moral and economic terms.
“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,” Mr. Holder’s speech says. “It imposes a significant economic burden — totaling $80 billion in 2010 alone — and it comes with human and moral costs that are impossible to calculate.”
Under a policy memorandum being sent to all United States attorney offices on Monday, according to an administration official, prosecutors will be told that they may not write the specific quantity of drugs when drafting indictments for drug defendants who meet the following four criteria: their conduct did not involve violence, the use of a weapon or sales to minors; they are not leaders of a criminal organization; they have no significant ties to large-scale gangs or cartels; and they have no significant criminal history.
The New York Times notes that the Obama Administration has been outflanked on conservative states, including Texas, that have implemented criminal justice reforms to reduce the costly burden of incarceration on taxpayers.
Texas, the birthplace of the Right on Crime iniative, introduced a set of criminal justice reforms that focus on rehabiliation rather than imprisonment. These policy reforms have saved Texans $2 billion in prison expansion costs and reduced recidivism (repeat offender) rates.
Texas isn’t the only state pursuing reforms. Several other red states, including Arkansas and Georgia, have pushed a change in approach on criminal justice in an effort to save money during tough economic times. Earlier this year, Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, a Republican running for Governor of the Commonwealth, endorsed criminal justice reform in front of a conservative audience.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) has pushed the issue, making it a main part of his agenda to bridge the gap between Republicans and minorities, who are disproportionately affected by the nation’s drug laws. Paul has joined Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) to propose an end to federal mandatory minimums in non-violent drug crimes.
While not a panacea for the injustices of the United States’ war on drugs, the reforms introduced by Holder are very much a step in the right direction.