Monday, August 12, 2013

AG Holder: 'Too many people in jail for too long'

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder told NPR, "I think there are too many people in jail for too long, and for not necessarily good reasons."

This is the nation's top law enforcement officer calling for a sea change in the criminal justice system. And he's not alone.

Over the past few weeks, lawmakers have introduced bipartisan measures that would give judges more power to shorten prison sentences for nonviolent criminals and even get rid of some mandatory minimum terms altogether.

"The war on drugs is now 30, 40 years old," Holder said. "There have been a lot of unintended consequences. There's been a decimation of certain communities, in particular communities of color."

That's one reason why the Justice Department has had a group of lawyers working behind the scenes for months on proposals the attorney general could present as early as next week in a speech to the American Bar Association in San Francisco.

Some of the items are changes Holder can make on his own, such as directing U.S. attorneys not to prosecute certain kinds of low-level drug crimes, or spending money to send more defendants into treatment instead of prison. Almost half of the 219,000 people currently in federal prison are serving time on drug charges.

Ohio State University law professor Douglas Berman has been following the criminal justice system for years. With violent crime near record lows, and federal prisons eating up a quarter of the Justice Department's 2014 budget, Berman says now may be time for change.

"There's the opportunity for action, not only on [Capitol Hill] but maybe in the Obama administration particularly, when we're a little bit away from the midterm elections and a long time away from the next presidential election cycle," Berman says.

It would be the first major sentencing reform since the crack epidemic of the 1980s, he says.

"It's not just a story of new politicians in Washington having a new willingness to speak about these issues, because of lower crime rates and the budget crisis, but I think also the discovery that across the political spectrum across the country, states have been successful in modifying ... sentencing laws to go from what's often talked about as being tough to being smarter on crime," Berman adds.

Some prosecutors, even some inside the Justice Department, may have a hard time making that pivot, as they debate how lengthy prison terms may have helped lower the crime rate.

But Berman says it's worth asking these questions: "Are we using the prison system too broadly, too widely? Are we getting a poor return on our investment with criminal justice dollars when we're constantly growing the federal prison population and especially in a time of sequester that comes with cuts to prosecutors, cuts to police forces, cuts to defender services?"

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