Matthew T. Mangino
GateHouse News Service
August 16, 2013
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder recently announced that low-level, nonviolent drug offenders will no longer be charged with offenses that impose severe mandatory sentences. That sounds great and Holder should be commended for starting a dialogue that may lead to meaningful reform on prison crowding and soaring costs.
However, his proposal will have little impact. There are about 1.57 million people in prison in the United States, not to mention the millions of inmates who cycle through America’s county jails each year.
The federal prison population, the only area that Holder has authority to address, consists of about 14 percent of the nation’s overall prison population. Most would agree that about half of those inmates are in prison for drug offenses.
The question becomes, how many of those drug offenders in federal prison are low-level, nonviolent drug offenders? In my experience as a state prosecutor, I was not aware of the federal government prosecuting individuals for possession of small amounts of illegal drugs.
Often the federal government was involved in complex drug investigations involving numerous targets and large quantities of drugs. In most cases, federal mandatory sentencing is based on the quantity of illegal drugs possessed by an offender. Rarely would a nonviolent, low-level drug offender, possessing a small amount of illegal drugs, receive a mandatory federal sentence.
Are there low-level, nonviolent drug dealers? If an offender is selling drugs — maybe he isn’t armed and maybe he doesn’t resort to violence. However, the drug-addicted buyer may resort to theft or robbery to get money — a purse snatching, a mugging, an armed robbery. The person selling drugs is dealing in violence — at least indirectly.
There is no question that federal prisons are bursting at the seams. The U.S has seen a 500 percent increase in the number of inmates in federal prison over the last 30 years. The federal bureau of prisons is nearly 40 percent over capacity, and it costs about $30,000 a year to house an inmate.
However, in those same 30 years, crime rates have fallen to levels not seen in nearly half a century. In some places, like New York City, the homicide rate has fallen to record lows. While there are many theories as to why crime rates have fallen so precipitously, one factor that has had an impact is incarceration. Is it the sole reason, of course not, but it is a factor. Will a sudden change in incarceration rates have an impact on crime rates?
The cost of maintaining the federal prison system is enormous. The U.S. spent $80 billion in 2010 on prisons and jails. There are two different directions that lawmakers can go, raise revenue — taxes — to pay for the rising cost of punishing offenders, or reduce costs by incarcerating fewer offenders.
There was a time in this country when being labeled “soft on crime” was the worst possible fate for a politician. Today, politicians will do anything to avoid the label “tax and spend” — even if that means being soft on crime. Therein is the concern.
This country has made great strides in dealing with crime and violence. We should not rush to change the system because it is financially expedient to do so. There are states that have reduced prison population while maintaining public safety.
Let’s proceed with caution, examine the long term effects of Justice Reinvestment Initiatives underway in a number of states. The criminal justice system can benefit from meaningful reform. Let’s not nibble around the edges with things like federal mandatory minimums or federal charging procedures.
The issues of freedom, justice and public safety demand well planned, comprehensive, evidence-based practices that lead to meaningful and balanced reform.
Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly and George and the former district attorney for Lawrence County, Pa. You can read his blog at www.mattmangino.com and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewTMangino.
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