Today, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder testified before the Sentencing Commission to give his endorsement for reducing prison sentencing on low-level drug offenses.
He says, “This focused reliance on incarceration is not just financially unsustainable – it comes with human and moral costs that are impossible to calculate.”
The goal is to focus taxpayer dollars and other resources on the country’s most serious drug offenses — ones that may pose a threat to public safety. The U.S. spends almost $83 billion every year on corrections, and the Justice Department’s yearly budget makes up about a quarter of the federal government’s spending.
Lowering the base sentences for non-violent, low-level drug trafficking convictions would decrease the average sentence by a year. This means that some prisoners who do not pose a threat to public safety would be released sooner, eliminating the cost of supporting them in the prison system. In fact, the Commission predicts that after five years, the federal prison population would decrease by 6,550 prisoners.
The Washington Post reports that under current mandatory minimum guidelines, someone convicted of possessing 500 grams of cocaine or 28 grams of crack would normally be sentenced to 63 to 78 months behind bars. But under Holder’s recommended reductions, this would be reduced to 51 to 63 months.
Nearly half of the prisoners serving time in federal prisons are there on drug related charges, and these sentence reductions would affect about 70 percent of those prisoners. Holder ensures that the amendment would continue “to ensure tough penalties for violent criminals, career criminals, or those who used weapons when committing drug crimes.”
Holder also encourages the use of rehabilitative alternatives to prison when possible. Recently, 17 U.S. states have directed their justice system budgets toward drug treatment programs and other services proven to reduce recidivism instead of toward more prison construction. The Bureau of Justice Assistance predicts that these states will save $4.6 billion over 10 years due to this. These states have also seen fewer released prisoners returning to prison and lower crime rates in prison and in the community.
The Commission plans to vote on Holder’s amendment in April.
To learn about Justice Fellowship’s work on fair sentencing, please visit their website.