The nation's shameful policy of packing people into prisons to serve long sentences for relatively minor crimes wandered outside the limits of sanity a long time ago, making U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder's call for reform this week most welcome.
"It's time -- in fact, it's well past time -- to address persistent needs and unwarranted disparities by considering a fundamentally new approach," Holder told the American Bar Association Monday.
Exactly. Although some of the concepts Holder is proposing are already being tried by states, his forceful call for sentencing reform should add to the momentum for change.
Holder noted that the federal prison population has increased by almost 800 percent since the 1980s, when Congress passed mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes. Of 219,000 federal inmates currently behind bars, almost half are there for drug-related crimes. People of color often receive harsher sentences than offenders who are white. A study released this year showed that black men in recent years have been sentenced to prison terms 20 percent longer than those handed out to white males convicted of similar crimes.
"A vicious cycle of poverty, criminality and incarceration traps too many Americans and weakens too many communities," the attorney general said. "And many aspects of the criminal justice system may actually exacerbate these problems."
Holder announced changes aimed at keeping low-level, nonviolent drug offenders with no ties to gangs or drug cartels out of federal prisons. Some cases will be reassigned to state courts. Federal prosecutors will be instructed on how to write criminal complaints without tripping the mandatory sentencing requirements.
The U.S. Department of Justice will support more "compassionate releases" of elderly or ill patients who pose no threat to the public. And it will expand alternatives to prison, such as mandatory drug treatment.
Prompted by budget shortfalls and alarming recidivism rates, many states already have embarked on the sorts of changes Holder is proposing.
Kansas in 2003 passed a landmark law requiring community-based supervision and treatment instead of prison for non-violent offenders convicted of simple drug possession. Two years ago the Legislature expanded the levels of drug crimes for sentencing purposes, to better differentiate among traffickers, small sellers and users.
For a time, Kansas was recognized as a leader in working with communities to treat offenders in settings other than prison. But the state foolishly cut back on those progressive efforts for budgetary reasons. It's important for federal and state governments to recognize that sentencing alternatives to incarceration must be backed up by well-funded treatment and supervision programs.
Missouri legislated some positive reforms a year ago, lessening the sentencing disparity between illegal possession and use of powdered and crack cocaine and increasing supervision and treatment for people on probation and parole.
Other states are farther ahead, though. Holder cited Kentucky, Texas and Arkansas as some of the states that have reduced prison populations without compromising public safety.
Smarter sentencing may be the rare cause that finds bipartisan support. Only three lawmakers opposed Missouri's 2012 law. In the U.S. Senate, liberal Democrat Dick Durbin of Illinois and libertarian Republican Rand Paul of Kentucky support more discretion for federal judges.
Violent criminals and crime bosses should be behind bars. But leaders at all levels should heed Holder's call for a new approach. As he said: "We cannot simply prosecute or incarcerate our way to becoming a safer nation."
-- Kansas City Star