Policy changes: Fairness in sentencing

EDDIE BERNICE JOHNSON | 9/23/2013, 11:45 a.m.

U.S. Congress

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder recently announced key policy changes designed to reduce our nation’s prison population. Under Holder’s plan, the Justice Department will no longer hand out unduly harsh sentences to low-level drug offenders who have no connections to gangs and drug trafficking. Holder’s plan makes absolutely good sense.

America has the highest documented prison population in the world. Nearly 2.3 million adults were incarcerated in federal, state and county prisons and jails in 2012, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.

During the past two decades the country has witnessed an increase in its prison population largely due to mandatory sentencing policies that were implemented in the l980s. Many of those arrested and given such sentences were minor drug dealers. Holder announced that these people would be spared the mandatory sentencing guides that had given some of them sentences of 10 years or more.

Since President Richard Nixon announced the “war on drugs” in the early 1970s, our prison population has risen so dramatically that we have 25 percent of the world’s prison population while we account for only 5 percent of the world’s population. Currently, people convicted of conspiracy to sell 5 kg of cocaine receive a mandatory 10-year minimum sentence.

Many jurisdictions have developed drug courts and effective drug treatment plans, but judges find their hands tied by the current sentencing requirements. Even first time offenders have been subject to the policy that placed them behind bars for a decade.

According to Justice Department figures, the U.S. prison population of 1,571,013 has been slowly decreasing along with the country’s declining crime rate. There have been several attempts in Congress to reform sentencing policy, leading to speculation that an era of massive prison incarceration would cease.

Our current policy is also fiscally irresponsible. In 2010, housing prisoners in this country cost taxpayers $80 billion. These resources can be better used by keeping dangerous criminals incarcerated and making serious attempts at rehabilitation rather than just warehousing individuals.

Harsh, mandatory minimum sentences for minor drug crimes do not make sense. When we incarcerate minor offenders, many of whom are racial minorities, for extended periods we cripple communities, families and our economy. Once released, many are unable to find employment and quickly resort to lives of crime.

The attorney general also announced that the Justice Department would also begin to review sentencing disparities in America, citing a recent study that concluded that Black males received sentences that were 20 percent longer than Whites convicted of similar offenses.

A civil society does not become a safer one by simply prosecuting and incarcerating its citizens. While we must continue to fight criminal behavior, we must also be reasonable in our sentencing polices.