So much of the criminal justice system is stuck in the past. Many statutes adopted years ago to handle a crack cocaine epidemic and a rising violent crime rate have not been adapted to modern realities. But states are experimenting with more surgical tools to lower costs and provide for smarter justice.
The federal government, on the other hand, has been slow to adapt because neither political party wants to be portrayed as soft on crime. Nonviolent drug offenders are kept in prisons despite posing little threat to society. The cost of this irrational policy is exorbitant. With 5 percent of the world’s population, the United States is home to 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated people at a cost of $80 billion in 2010. Most of this excess is tied to the four-decade-long war on drugs.
On Monday, Attorney General Eric Holder announced a major shift at the U.S. Justice Department to help bring policy into the 21st century. Federal prosecutors will no longer list the quantities of drugs in filing charges. That’s because draconian statutes that provide for mandatory minimum sentences are predicated on volume. By omitting that figure, prosecutors and judges will have more discretion, which paves the way for alternative sentencing.
It may seem like a cute trick or executive branch overreach, but passing criminal justice reform in this stalemated Congress is unrealistic. Look at how long Congress has clung to the archaic classification of marijuana, which suggests it’s as bad as heroin.
It isn’t surprising that reforms first percolated in the states because most legislatures are required to balance their budgets. Meanwhile, the feds can tack the price of misguided policy onto the national deficit. Leaner state budgets have turned reform into a bipartisan issue because conservatives not swayed by the unfairness of long sentences are swayed by the cost.
Texas, for instance, stopped its prison boom in 2007, saving $2 billion. Instead, it poured $240 million into treatment and diversion programs. Twenty-nine states, including Washington, reduced their incarceration rate from 2006 to 2011, and the crime rate dropped in all but three of them.
Idaho’s prison population is growing, but state leaders are seeking reforms. In June, Gov. Butch Otter announced that the state had qualified for $250,000 in grants aimed at lowering the prison population, noting that “criminal justice is taking a larger and larger share of our state budget every year.”
In Spokane County, the criminal justice system has embraced drug treatment and alternative sentencing to keep the jail population down, and it’s working. As a result, plans for a new jail are being scaled back and reworked to accommodate this wiser use of resources.
Recent polls have found that Americans are mostly supportive of these flexible, cost-conscious policies. That could be just the signal members of Congress have been waiting for to reform federal statutes.
In the meantime, we don’t begrudge this executive action. Whatever actions the Justice Department can take within existing law are good first steps.