Smart on crime

Policy changes by the attorney general should spark a serious debate on drug sentencing and America’s race to incarcerate


America's race to incarcerate and its attendant war on drugs have been costly failures. They have not significantly affected street crime, but have exacted enormous human and economic costs from governments and communities.

States such as Ohio and Michigan spend billions of dollars each year on prisons. Michigan spends more on prisons than higher education.

Still, vote-seeking politicians continue to pass “get tough” laws, such as mandatory minimum drug sentences, that serve neither justice nor taxpayers. Such practices have helped quadruple U.S. prison populations over the past 35 years.

Jails and prisons in America, the world’s leading incarcerator, hold more than 2 million people. Roughly 40 percent of them are African-American men.

This week, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced new federal policies that will enable some nonviolent drug offenders to avoid Draconian mandatory minimum sentencing laws. He declared that it is time to rethink tough-on-crime policies that have bloated federal prison populations and forced judges to impose one-size-fits-all sentences.

It’s past time to reconsider and revise these policies. Politically, the nation is ripe for change: Local, state, and federal budgets are strapped. Many fiscal conservatives are questioning mass incarceration’s return on investment.

“The course we are on is far from sustainable,” Mr. Holder told the American Bar Association. “As the so-called war on dugs enters its fifth decade, we need to ask whether it, and the approaches that comprise it, have been truly effective.”

The Justice Department, he said, will step up efforts to find options other than incarceration. It will seek the release of more severely ill prisoners who no longer pose a threat to society.

In state prisons in Ohio and Michigan, thousands of severely ill prisoners are unnecessarily incarcerated and denied adequate heath care. They cost taxpayers millions of dollars in medical treatments that, outside prison, could be paid by sources other than state general funds.

Mr. Holder is following the lead of states such as Ohio that have reformed sentencing practices and policies and reduced their inmate populations. State prison populations have dropped since 2009, but the federal prison count, now at nearly 220,000 inmates, has not decreased; it remains eight times higher than it was in 1980. Nearly half of those inmates are drug offenders.

Incarceration costs devour about a third of the Justice Department’s budget. That’s partly why conservatives such as Sen. Rand Paul (R., Ky.) are embracing sentencing reform.

Mr. Holder’s new policies cover only defendants who do not have a significant criminal history. They won’t affect a large number of federal cases.

Still, his comments are the most forceful yet from the nation’s top law enforcement officer. They should help reframe a long-overdue debate on drug sentences, and on America’s futile and costly race to incarcerate.