It’s no secret that America is top of the list when it comes to prisoners per capita. With five percent of the world’s population, yet 25 percent of the prison population, it’s clear we have a problem on our hands — but is it the laws that are the problem, or the people? To Attorney General Eric Holder, the answer is clear: If it weren’t for the criminalization of drugs and mandatory sentencing, we’d have a much smaller prison population — and those are problems that can be handled in different ways. Yet, Holder can’t do it alone; he has to have legislative support from Congress.
Right now, Holder is putting pressure on prosecutors to carefully create indictments that will result in lesser sentences for certain types of offenders, especially nonviolent drug offenders with no ties to organized crime. As the Washington Post says, “Prosecutors, for example, might leave out the amount of an illicit substance found on a defendant, instead offering that detail later in the process, when its introduction wouldn’t trigger a mandatory sentence.”
Long-term, our prison industrial problem has to be fixed by changes in the law, not by activist prosecutors. There is only so much the Justice Department can do. The WP goes on to report,
This sounds uncomfortably like adjusting the crime to fit the punishment. Douglas Berman, a law professor at Ohio State University, argues that many federal prosecutors are already exercising this sort of discretion; Mr. Holder is mostly imposing consistency across the system, with an eye toward sensibly reducing the number of prisoners.
But Congress established mandatory minimums, and it is the ultimate responsibility of lawmakers to reform sentencing policy and make clear how much flexibility they want built into the system. The attorney general mentioned that a couple of bipartisan bills would give judges more discretion in sentencing, and advocates say that there doesn’t seem to be much opposition to reform. Mr. Holder’s efforts should be viewed as a way station until Congress acts, as well as a nudge to lawmakers. Passing legislation, not simply altering rules within the Justice Department, is the best and most enduring way to change the system.
We must call on Congress to solve the problem our justice system has become. For-profit prisons, ALEC and racially implemented criminal law have resulted in an absolute mess, where minorities are hit hard by a system designed to fill beds. As Attorney General Eric Holder said, “We need to ensure that incarceration is used to punish, deter and rehabilitate, not merely to warehouse and forget.”
It isn’t enough for the justice system to be punitive — and nor, in all cases, should it be. For example, drug users, while hurting themselves, aren’t taking direct, harmful action against another person. Therefore, the argument could be made that such crimes aren’t criminal at all and should be treated as personal health issues and addressed in the same manner. Treating them as criminal issues costs a lot of money, after all, and it doesn’t work as a solution for the problem in any case.
In many cases, prisoners are being exploited for low-paying work, creating a dedicated and cheap workforce that labor-oriented corporations are only too eager to take advantage of. Especially when a prison is privately owned and for-profit in the first place, cases like that really make you consider whether our justice system is really aiming at justice at all.
Reposted from Occupy Democrats with permission.
- Editorial: Eric Holder right to target drug sentencing (denverpost.com)
- Holder to call for major reform of mandatory minimum sentencing (thegrio.com)
- Holder goes after mandatory federal drug sentences (news.yahoo.com)