U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder’s call last week for a revision of mandatory federal sentencing laws is a welcome but overdue proposal.
Holder specifically took aim at low-level, nonviolent drug offenders who have filled the nation’s prisons during the so-called “War on Drugs” of the past 30 years.
Mandatory minimum sentencing and so-called “three strikes” laws were enacted throughout the 1980s and 1990s as politicians sought to “get tough” on crime and more aggressively combat the failing “War of Drugs.” These laws removed any discretion in sentencing from judges based on the actual conditions of specific cases and imposed arbitrary prison time for general classifications of different types of crimes.
The result was a swelling of the U.S. prison population – mostly with inmates convicted of drug-related crimes. Holder said the prison population has grown by almost 800 percent since 1980, with more than 219,000 federal inmates in facilities that are operating at nearly 40 percent above capacity.
Holder said he has instructed federal prosecutors to stop charging many nonviolent drug defendants with offenses that carry mandatory minimum sentences. He said he plans to work with Congress to give judges greater discretion in sentencing.
It’s way past time for the United States to bring some common sense to the criminal justice system and return flexibility to judges when they hand down sentences. The increasing costs of maintaining the country’s prisons continues to divert needed resources from law enforcement agencies, prosecutors and drug prevention and intervention programs.
Mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenders promote injustice and do nothing to protect public safety. Holder is correct in his call to abandon them.