WASHINGTON – Attorney General Eric Holders prison proposals drew praise from criminal justice experts Monday, but some critics said the proposals do not go far enough to begin overhauling a costly and broken law enforcement system.
In an effort to reduce the population of the nations overflowing federal prisons, Holder directed his 94 U.S. attorneys across the country to stop charging low-level, nonviolent drug offenders with offenses that impose severe mandatory sentences.
The disparities in the criminal justice system unfairly hit poor and minority communities the hardest, Holder said in a speech at the annual meeting of the American Bar Association in San Francisco. Holder cited a recent deeply troubling report that indicates that black male offenders have received sentences nearly 20 percent longer than those imposed on white males convicted of similar crimes.
This isnt just unacceptable, Holder said. It is shameful.
Many of Holders proposals, which are aimed at saving tens of millions in prison costs, have bipartisan support, and the Obama administration does not expect them to be controversial.
In fact, there is strong conservative backing for reforming prisons and mandatory minimum laws, and Republican governors in some of the most conservative states have been leading the way on prison reform.
In Congress, both Republican and Democratic leaders have introduced legislation aimed at giving federal judges more discretion in applying mandatory minimums to certain drug offenders.
Laura Murphy, director of the American Civil Liberties Unions Washington Legislative Office, said the ACLU is thrilled by Holders actions.
These policies will make it more likely that wasteful and harmful federal prison overcrowding will end, Murphy said.
Holder cited figures that show the federal prison population has grown almost 800 percent since 1980. With an outsized, unnecessarily large prison population, we need to ensure that incarceration is used to punish, deter and rehabilitate, not merely to warehouse and forget, he said.
Attorneys across the Washington region said many questions remain about how Holders proposals will be implemented.
Matt Kaiser, a former public defender in Greenbelt, Md., and an adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University, applauded Holder for talking about mass incarceration.
The problem is that when you look at why we have so many people in prison – especially at the federal level – what he is proposing is not likely to reduce those numbers, Kaiser said.
Ronald Machen, the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, said his office is evaluating when to seek a mandatory minimum sentence.
We look forward to implementing the Departments new guidance in a manner that conserves our resources so that we can best confront our most pressing and persistent public safety challenges, Machen said in a statement.
Jeffrey Zimmerman, an Alexandria, Va., defense attorney, said Holders memo had rocketed around the defense community and could undercut an argument prosecutors often make in negotiating plea deals – that their hands are tied by office policy.
Julie Stewart, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, said that Holders proposals are a great step in the right direction but added that whats being proposed here is very modest.
These are minor tweaks compared to the major overhauls weve seen enacted at the state level, Stewart said.
Indeed, Holder pointed to recent state initiatives as models for significant national prison reform.
In Kentucky, new legislation has reserved prison cells for the most serious offenders, instead focusing resources on community supervision and other alternatives.
The state is projected to reduce its prison population by more than 3,000 over the next 10 years, saving more than $400 million, according to Justice Department officials.
Investments in drug treatment for nonviolent offenders and changes to parole policies in Texas reduced the prison population by more than 5,000 inmates last year. Similar efforts helped Arkansas reduce its prison population by more than 1,400 last year.
Clearly, these strategies can work, Holder said. Theyve attracted overwhelming, bipartisan support in red states as well as blue states. And its past time for others to take notice.