Harsh sentences for minor drug crimes need rethinking

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The light has finally gone on in Washington, D.C., that long mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug-related crimes may give the appearance of being tough on crime but the costs can far outweigh the benefits.

Attorney General Eric Holder is pushing to divert people convicted of low-level offenses into drug treatment and community service programs.

This pragmatic approach is already being used in some states, including Washington. Holder’s aptly named “Smart on Crime” initiative — which has bipartisan support on Capitol Hill — would grant federal judges greater flexibility in sentencing.

That doesn’t mean being soft on crime. It means using prisons for the worst criminals and trying to get minor drug offenders back to being productive, taxpaying citizens. The cost per inmate per year in minimum security is just over $21,000, according to a December 2012 report by the Urban Institute Justice Policy Center.

It has finally dawned on the federal government that being “Tough on Crime” is very hard on the pocketbook. And, Holder told The Associated Press, the mandatory minimum sentences “breed disrespect for the system. When applied indiscriminately, they do not serve public safety. They have had a disabling effect on communities. And they are ultimately counterproductive.”

According to AP, federal prisons are nearly 40 percent above capacity. Almost half of the more than 219,000 inmates are serving time for drug-related crimes. There are about 25,000 drug convictions in federal court each year and 45 percent of those are for lower-level offenses, said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project. The nonprofit group is involved in research and policy reform of the criminal justice system.

“By targeting the most serious offenses, prosecuting the most dangerous criminals, directing assistance to crime ‘hot spots,’ and pursuing new ways to promote public safety, deterrence, efficiency and fairness — we can become both smarter and tougher on crime,” Holder said.

This approach makes senses.

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