Attorney General Eric Holder announced today that required mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses would be coming to an end. These highly controversial minimum sentences would no longer be required for nonviolent, low-level drug offenders. This signals a major turning point in state and federal sentencing policy and should have a massive impact on the growing federal prison population.
These mandatory minimums were heavily implemented in the 1980s, although the "war on drugs" dates back to the Nixon era. They were a way for politicians and lawmakers to show that they were tough on crime, but decades later it is difficult to prove that the mandatory minimums did anything more than increase the state and federal prison population. Since the 1980s, federal prison population has increased 800 percent.
Holder noted that shifting policy in this direction has become a bipartisan issue, citing officials from "red" and "blue" states advocating for an end to these minimum sentences for drug offenders. Just about half of the federal prison population is comprised of inmates sentenced for drug-related crimes. Many of these thousands of individuals were sentenced for nonviolent and low-level offenses.
Our attorney general and many others hold to the belief that harsh sentences for these types of crimes do little to keep our communities safer, but actually perpetuate a cycle of incarceration that is far too much the norm in urban areas, particularly among low socioeconomic classes. As an alternative to mandatory minimums, the federal government plans to implement drug rehabilitation and community service programs. In turn, they hope this will help manage our overcrowded prisons while simultaneously helping offenders avoid recidivism.
Some states have already begun to reverse these harsh sentences for nonviolent drug offenders, such as Texas and New York. Even California recently amended its "Three Strikes Law" so it only applies to third violent felony offenses, rather than all third felony offenses. All state prisons in the United States are under court order to reduce inmates, a total reduction of 10,000 prisoners nationwide.
"By reserving the most severe penalties for serious, high-level or violent drug traffickers, we can better promote public safety, deterrence and rehabilitation, while making our expenditures smarter and more productive," Holder said.
The United States imprisons a greater percentage of its population than any other country in the world. Our country holds five percent of the world's population, and yet nearly a quarter of the world's total prison population. Holder and others are advocating for massive sweeps in sentencing changes so that the punishment more appropriately fits the crime.