Making Government Work

Does Reducing Jail Sentences Take a Bite Out of Crime?

March 17, 2014
Does Reducing Jail Sentences Take a Bite Out of Crime?
Attorney General Eric Holder is making good on his promise to clean up the streets and prison rosters.
“We cannot prosecute our way to becoming a safer nation.”
That’s the guiding principle behind Attorney General Eric Holder’s “Smart on Crime” initiative, which he launched last spring. This week, he made impressive strides toward making good on that statement, as well as the plan’s promise to enforce fair punishments as well as ensuring safety.
Back in 2009, the U.S. had the highest documented prison population in the world. Holder has made it his mission to leave a legacy of lower incarceration rates — and he’s doing it with an eye on drug sentences. On Thursday, Holder advocated to the U.S. Sentencing Commission a decrease in minimum sentences for drug offenses, just days after calling for a fight to curb heroin-related overdoses and a limit to jail sentences imposed on drug offenders, National Journal reported.

His drug-sentence focus is a wise one: Numbers show that it has the best chance of creating positive, tangible results. Half of American inmates are serving drug sentences, and of those inmates, a disproportionate number are African-American.
Per Holder’s proposal, drug-related sentences would drop by an average of 11 months (from 62 months to 51 months), decreasing the federal inmate population by 6,550 over five years. That decrease would reverberate far beyond population statistics; reducing the prison population by 6,550 would save, on average, $169,238,900 a year, according to the Urban Institute. It would also put the prison system in a more favorable light. “This overreliance on incarceration is not just financially unsustainable; it comes with human and moral costs that are impossible to calculate,” Holder told the commission.
This is the latest in Holder’s firm march toward prison reform. National Journal reports that in August, he announced that low-level drug offenders (not connected to organized crime) would no longer be charged with crimes that impose mandatory minimums. The Sentencing Commission will vote on his newest proposal in April. Until then, he’s enjoying support from across the aisle and from the public.

During a panel at last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference, Texas Governor Rick Perry gave highly favorable remarks about Holder’s initiative. “The idea that we lock people up, throw them away, and never give them a chance of redemption is not what America is about,” Perry said. “Being able to give someone a second chance is very important.” Poll results show a similar consensus. In 2012, Pew found that 84 percent of Americans agreed with the statement, “Some of the money that we are spending on locking up low-risk, nonviolent inmates should be shifted to strengthening community corrections programs like probation and parole.” Meanwhile, 69 percent of Americans agreed with the statement, “One out of every 100 American adults is in prison. That’s too many, and it costs too much.”

 We’ll have to wait until April to see the outcome of Holder’s latest efforts, but he’ll surely continue fighting tirelessly, regardless of the outcome.