The Holder announcement would only directly impact the federal system, which accounts for about 10 percent of people incarcerated in the U.S. According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, the nearly 219,000 inmates in the federal prison system are disproportionately of color, including 37.1 percent African-American and 34.9 percent Hispanic. Further, 46.8 percent of offenses are drug related, and only 11.2% of prisoners have a high security level. While 28.6 percent of federal inmates are medium security, 56.4 percent are low or minimum security.
However, experts believe the leadership demonstrated by Holder and the Obama administration could filter down to the states, the crucible for most of America’s mass incarceration problem. The four-decade war on drugs— a creation of the federal government— has fueled a mass incarceration explosion in the U.S., making the country the world’s largest jailer.
With 5 percent of the world’s population, the U.S. accounts for one quarter of the world’s prisoners. From 1980 to 2008, the number of incarcerated Americans jumped from 500,000 to 2.3 million, a fourfold increase, according to the NAACP (during that time, the federal prisons have grown 800% and are still 40% above capacity, while the U.S. population grew by a third). And as the victims of racially disparate drug sentencing, blacks and Latinos account for 58% of the prisoners.
While five times as many whites use drugs as blacks, blacks are sent to prison for drug offenses at 10 times the rate of whites. In addition, African-Americans are 12 percent of drug users, but they are 38 percent of people arrested for drug possession, and 59 percent of people in state prison for drugs.