‘This Is Our Chance’:
In a change in enforcement tactics rather than in the laws themselves, the attorney general instructed federal prosecutors to omit the quantities of illegal drugs when indicting minor, nonviolent drug offenders. As a result, the mandatory minimum sentences would not be triggered, giving judges and prosecutors more discretion. The impact—reducing America’s burgeoning prison population—is potentially great. Holder believes that federal prosecutors should not charge every defendant who is accused of breaking federal law, as states and localities are better positioned to handle certain issues. Further, Holder directed U.S. attorneys to create anti-violence strategies for severely crime-ridden areas.
“This is our chance – to bring America’s criminal justice system in line with our most sacred values,” Holder said. “Today, a vicious cycle of poverty, criminality, and incarceration traps too many Americans and weakens too many communities. And many aspects of our criminal justice system may actually exacerbate these problems, rather than alleviate them.”
The decriminalization of drugs and the reform of draconian sentencing receive bipartisan support. There is a fiscal and economic reason behind such a policy shift. According to Holder, massive incarceration imposes a high economic burden on the country, including $80 billion in 2010 alone, not to mention the incalculable human and moral costs. “Ultimately, this is about much more than fairness for those who are released from prison. It’s a matter of public safety and public good. It makes plain economic sense,” Holder added.
The attorney general spoke out against the collateral consequences of crime, those regulations which impose further punishment on those convicted of crimes, such as restrictions on housing and employment. Further, Holder called for more funding for public defenders, urging Congress to end the forced budget cuts which have decimated indigent defense systems and threatened equal access to justice for the poor.
The bottom line is that, while the aggressive enforcement of federal criminal statutes remains necessary, we cannot simply prosecute or incarcerate our way to becoming a safer nation. To be effective, federal efforts must also focus on prevention and re-entry. We must never stop being tough on crime. But we must also be smart and efficient when battling crime and the conditions and the individual choices that breed it.