Editorial: A smarter, more prudent way to punish drug offenders
Recalibrating federal law enforcement to avoid long mandatory sentences for nonviolent drug offenders is a case of fiscal reality driving smart policy.
Under the initiative Attorney General Eric Holder announced Monday, federal prosecutors will focus more on the most dangerous criminals and the most serious crimes. That follows the lead of states, including New York, that have used similar approaches to dramatically cut the number of inmates without compromising public safety. Federal prisons will cost taxpayers $6.4 billion this year. They are 40 percent over capacity, and more than half of the 219,520 inmates are in for drug offenses. Federal budgets are tight, so something has got to give.
Holder directed U.S. attorneys around the country to stop bringing charges that carry stiff mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug offenders who have no connection to gangs or cartels. New York State made similar changes, culminating in 2009, when it abandoned most mandatory minimum sentences and embraced drug treatment and other alternatives to incarceration. The 24,085 drug offenders in prison in New York in 1996 plummeted to 7,053 in December 2012.
Federal mandatory sentences become longer as the weight of narcotics seized increases. But the Obama administration already allows federal prosecutors to assess each case and charge with an eye to the most just outcome. Monday's initiative took that further by spelling out specific situations where stiff mandatory time is to be avoided. Implementing the new approach could be difficult in some jurisdictions, but not in busy, big-city offices where prosecutors already use their discretion to fit charges to circumstances.
Still, the administration is right to support bills in Congress to give federal judges greater sentencing discretion. That's the best approach to achieve lasting reforms.
Mass incarceration is disruptive to families and communities and costly for taxpayers. States have shown there's a better way. The federal government is right to take it.