The war on drugs hasn’t done much to stop drug use in this country — far from it — but it’s done a commendable job for the prison industry. Since the “war” was launched in earnest three decades ago, state and federal prison populations have soared fivefold, costing taxpayers $80 billion a year.
Many of those prisoners are low-level, nonviolent drug offenders — people who would benefit more from treatment than incarceration. So U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder’s announcement of a major shift in federal sentencing policies, aimed at reducing the automatic imprisonment of thousands of low-level drug offenders, is welcome news. It’s not just a more humane way to deal with the issue, but a more economically feasible way.
The big problem are laws requiring mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders, based on the quantity and type of drugs they’re arrested with, and sentencing guidelines that allow for little discretion.
Yes, drug offenders are lawbreakers and deserve to be punished, but the mandatory minimums are often much longer than necessary to prove the point or to deter. If these people didn’t hurt anyone in the commission of their crimes, and seem unlikely to if they’re released (i.e. they weren’t gang members), then locking them up for decades seems excessive.
Indeed, a number of states, including New York, have seen the light on mandatory minimums and, as a result, are spending a lot less money incarcerating low-level drug offenders. The number of New Yorkers imprisoned for nonviolent crimes has reportedly dropped 62 percent since 2000, enabling the state’s prison population to drop roughly 2 percent per year. At $55,000 a year per prisoner, that represents pretty good savings.
The federal prison system, currently at 140 percent of capacity, could benefit tremendously from Holder’s proposed changes. So could tens of thousands of prisoners, including many elderly and infirm ones who pose little threat to public safety.
Legislation in Congress aimed at reducing mandatory minimums and giving judges greater latitude in sentencing reportedly has bipartisan support, and would address this problem regardless of who the president or attorney general is. Even better.