Among the casualties of a failed war on drugs that has spanned more than three decades are bloated prisons that cost the nation nearly $90 billion a year. With only 5 percent of the world’s population, the United States holds 25 percent of its prisoners; more than 2 million people are locked up in this country.
The U.S. Sentencing Commission, which sets sentencing guidelines for federal judges, is considering changes that would shorten average sentences for nonviolent drug offenders by roughly one year — to 51 months from 63 months. That would result in a 17 percent sentence reduction for the average offender.
The changes would not affect the 1.6 million people who are locked up in state prisons around the country, including more than 50,000 in Ohio. They would cover only the 215,000 prisoners in the federal system, half of whom are serving time for drug crimes.
The Justice Department estimates that the proposed changes would lower the federal prison population by 6,500 inmates over five years. That’s a small step toward a more cost-effective and just criminal justice system.
Members of the commission should approve the changes. If they do, the new guidelines will take effect in November unless Congress unwisely rejects the proposed amendments.
Attorney General Eric Holder, Jr., has endorsed the plan, which several Republicans in Congress also support. It’s a sign that the Obama Administration, and many Democrats and Republicans, are rethinking the failed criminal justice policies of the last 30 years.
Earlier this year, the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee approved the bipartisan Smarter Sentencing Act, the first major reconsideration of federal mandatory minimum drug sentencing laws since the Nixon administration. In a related move, Mr. Holder is pushing for eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug crimes.
Many prosecutors nationwide oppose the proposed changes in federal sentencing guidelines. They argue that saving money should not dictate public safety policy and that the sentencing reductions would undermine their ability to dismantle drug networks by pressuring low-level offenders to cooperate in securing convictions against drug kingpins.
Neither argument is compelling. It’s true that strapped state budgets drive some criminal justice reforms. Ohio spends $1.5 billion a year on prisons, while neighboring Michigan spends $2 billion — more than it spends on higher education. In the real world, costs always play a role in public policy.
In this case, however, lowering the enormous costs of mass incarceration is a dividend for moving toward a more-sensible system. Too many Americans are in prison for too long.
One in 14 African-American children has an incarcerated parent. Prison has become almost a norm in many urban communities and an unacceptable expectation for many poor and disadvantaged children.
Modestly lowering federal drug sentences will not impede criminal investigations. People want to avoid prison sentences, whether for four years or 10. Jacking up sentences simply to pressure defendants to cooperate with an investigation is neither practical nor ethical.
Since the late 1970s, the U.S. prison population has skyrocketed to morally unacceptable and economically unsustainable levels. The impact of three decades of misguided policies won’t vanish overnight.
Still, the proposed changes in federal sentencing guidelines would help reverse Draconian policies that have filled federal prisons with nonviolent drug offenders serving unreasonably long sentences.