By Teresa Welsh |
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder's directive to curb use of mandatory minimums for non-violent drug offenders is practically and politically critical. But it is only a first step on what will be a long road to undo four-decades of irrational criminal justice policies.
As laudable as Holder's changes are, it is important to remember what they are and what they are not. First, Holder's directives are purely discretionary. They do not carry the force of law. Holder's successor – or the next administration – can reverse them easily. Even today's U.S. attorneys can ignore them. Second, federal prisons house only about 14 percent of the total correctional population. The vast majority of criminal prosecutions are undertaken by state and local prosecutors, who are outside Holder's control.
But Holder's speech could be as symbolically important as when President Harry Truman ordered the desegregation of the U.S. military nearly 65 years ago to the day. Given its high-profile prosecutions of government whistle-blowers and Wall Street insider traders, no one would argue that the Obama/Holder Justice Department is a bunch of softies when it comes to crime. And just as the roster of conservative luminaries collected by Right on Crime provided GOP lawmakers political cover to enact some prison reform in red states such as Texas and Arkansas, Holder's words could serve as a similar umbrella for Democrats to discuss reform without being branded as mushy-headed bleeding hearts.
One hopes Holder's policy shift spurs Congress to convert his words into the force of law. Although the sheer fiscal cost of simply warehousing the world's largest prison population is staggering, often unaddressed is the even more appalling cost to the country in lost economic productivity. Those returning home from prison – and even those with criminal records who have not been in prison - often cannot find jobs or end up underemployed, and the families they leave behind are thwarted economically and socially. It's well past time to recognize that favoring an end to mass incarceration is pro-growth, pro-family and pro-USA.
Predictions are that when Congress returns from its summer recess, it will be preoccupied with fiscal matters such as the budget and the debt ceiling. Yet, there are a number of bipartisan sentencing reform bills pending that would serve not only the needs of justice, but the needs of the economy as well. Lawmakers would be doing the nation a lasting service to recognize this and aside the empty election year rhetoric for just long enough to take up these bills and put an end to mass incarceration.
About Inimai Chettiar Director of the Justice Program at the Brennan Center
Michael B. Mukasey Former Attorney General of the United States