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Rob Horowitz: Finally, Some Common-Sense Drug Sentencing

Tuesday, August 20, 2013


Attorney General Eric Holder is looking at a more fair and effective way to sentence drug offenders and prevent recidivism.

Attorney General Eric Holder last week instituted a major policy change exempting some low-level drug offenders with no ties to gangs or cartels and without substantial criminal records from what the Attorney General rightly called, “draconian mandatory minimum sentences.” Federal Judges will now have the discretion to sentence these offenders more appropriately and make wider use of diversion programs that emphasize treatment and community service—programs with a proven track record of reducing recidivism.
This immediate policy change was announced as part of Holder’s speech to an annual American Bar Association gathering, in which he argued for a new, more targeted approach to combating crime that concentrates scarce resources on violent criminals and re-thinks an over-reliance on jail sentences for more minor offenses, especially the drug- related crimes that account for nearly half of our exploding federal prison population. As the Attorney General noted, “…too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long and for no truly good law enforcement reason.”
Since 1980, according to the Attorney General, the federal prison population has grown by nearly 800%, far outpacing population growth. All together, there are now about 1.6 million people in state and federal prisons, housed at an unsustainable total cost of $80 billion a year. These steadily increasing costs are spurring states including red states such as Texas and Kentucky to institute sentencing reforms including more use of drug treatment that are significantly reducing their prison populations
As the New York Times observed in an editorial endorsing the new policy, the most remarkable aspect of the reaction to Holder’s speech was that ‘there was virtually no opposition to be heard.’ In fact, there now appears to be broad bi-partisan support for the new direction advocated by the Attorney General. This includes Congressional legislation to reduce mandatory minimums and give Federal Judges more discretion introduced by prominent conservative Senators Mike Lee (R-UT) and Rand Paul (R-KY), joining together with Richard Durbin (D-IL) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT), two outspoken liberals.
Just as the original imposition of mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses was driven by a dramatic step-up in the amount of crime, the political space for reforming these policies has been created by a steadily decreasing crime rate. In the long-run the ability to sensibly reduce our prison population is tied to effective law enforcement strategies that work to curtail violent crime, the availability of quality alternatives to prison for non-violent offenders and a stronger emphasis on reentry programs for when prisoners return to society.
Attorney General Holder took the first important steps last week towards this more cost-effective, fair and better targeted approach. As the Attorney General would be the first to admit, there is a long road ahead with much more to do. But we are off to a great start.
Rob Horowitz is a strategic and communications consultant who provides general consulting, public relations, direct mail services and polling for national and state issue organizations, various non-profits and elected officials and candidates. He is an Adjunct Professor of Political Science at the University of Rhode Island.

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