U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder's announcement that the federal government is shifting its tactics in charging low-level drug offenders is a long-overdue reassessment of a failed policy that has unduly filled U.S. prisons since the 1980s. But federal and state laws should be altered to codify these reforms.
Holder, speaking at an American Bar Association convention in San Francisco on Monday, said that he has sent a three-page memo to the nation's 94 U.S. Attorneys' offices, instructing them to stop charging many nonviolent drug defendants with crimes that carry mandatory minimum sentences. He said the reform is meant to stop filling prisons with such offenders and instead steer them to drug-treatment programs and community-service programs.
The change follows the lead of many states and municipalities, including San Francisco, that already have directed money away from punitive sentencing and invested in rehabilitation programs.
In The City, current policies at the Police Department and District Attorney's Office treat low-level, nonviolent drug offenses as a low priority. When they do charge such cases they tend to emphasize alternative sentencing that favors rehabilitation over jail time. A recent article in The San Francisco Examiner highlighted the effects of this policy, with police arrests for drug offenses plummeting from 9,832 in 2008 to just 1,534 in 2012. Police Chief Greg Suhr said that change allows his department to better use its resources for serious crimes, and we agree.
And such reforms are not limited to liberal coastal cities. Seventeen states have directed money from prison construction to be used for treatment and supervision services. Texas, Kentucky, Georgia, North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania are among the states that Holder mentioned as having put reforms into place for nonviolent offenders.
Holder noted that the population in federal prisons has grown by almost 800 percent since the early 1980s. Nearly half of the 219,000 inmates behind bars are there for drug-related crimes.
Holder's proclamation focused on people who are not the leaders or organizers of drug rings. He is not proposing to abandon prison sentences in all such cases. But he was on point when he said that "we need to ensure that incarceration is used to punish, deter and rehabilitate — not merely to convict, warehouse and forget."
Perhaps the federal government is finally realizing that throwing money away housing low-level offenders is not the solution, and that using our limited resources for rehabilitation is far more worthwhile. But Holder's proposal is not permanent, and future administrations will have the power to undo it. True reform needs to be written into federal law, which will be a herculean task with the partisan bickering that dominates Washington, D.C. State laws also should be reformed to end draconian drug sentencing laws for nonviolent offenders.
These reforms are not about being soft on crime, but rather about wisely spending government's limited resources on penalizing the worst criminals and working to rehabilitate the rest. The money saved from housing inmates who could be steered elsewhere would be better spent on other needed law enforcement.