By Freddie Allen
NNPA Washington Correspondent
WASHINGTON (NNPA) – In a stunning turn in criminal justice policy, Attorney General Eric Holder announced steps the Justice Department will take to address over population in federal prisons by changing mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines and pushing non-violent drug offenders into rehab programs instead of prison cells.
In a speech Monday at an annual meeting of the American Bar Association in San Francisco, Holder said, “Today, a vicious cycle of poverty, criminality, and incarceration traps too many Americans and weakens too many communities. However, many aspects of our criminal justice system may actually exacerbate this problem, rather than alleviate it.”
Holder also acknowledged, that “too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long, and for no good law enforcement reason.”
Nearly 219,000 Americans are locked up in federal prisons. Even though, Blacks account for 13.1 percent of the United States population, Blacks take up 37 percent of the beds in federal prisons, according to Federal Bureau of Prisons. Roughly 47 percent of prisoners are locked up for drug offenses, many of them non-violent offenders. According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the Department of Justice spent $6.6 billion housing federal prisoners in 2012.
Holder said that the Justice Department’s plans would mirror policies that worked to reduce prison populations and recidivism in Kentucky, Texas, Georgia, North Carolina. Ohio and other states. According to Holder, at least 17 states have improved recidivism rates and decreased prison populations without compromising public safety by shifting resources “from prison construction and toward evidence-based programs and services, like treatment and supervision, that are designed to reduce recidivism.”
Holder noted that while the federal prison population continues to increase, in 2012 state prison populations experienced the largest drop in a single year.
“The bottom line is that, while the aggressive enforcement of federal criminal statutes remains necessary, we cannot simply prosecute or incarcerate our way to becoming a safer nation,” said Holder. “To be effective, federal efforts must also focus on prevention and reentry.”
Holder also announced increased funding for the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) that provides federal funding for advanced training and jobs for local law enforcement. Holder said that a new round of COPS grants would provide more than $110 million to hire military veterans and school resource officers.
The Obama administration placed more than $1.5 billion into the COPS program over the past four years, even as critics panned it and research that found it often contributed to over-policing in poor and minority communities and played only a limited role in the reduction of crime.
Still, members of Congress praised Holder’s announcement. In a press release, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) said that she will introduce legislation that will “curb federal prosecutions of low-level and non-violent drug offenders; re-focus scarce federal resources to prosecute major drug kingpins, and give courts and judges greater discretion to place drug users on probation or suspend the sentence entirely.”
In a separate statement, Congressional Black Caucus Chair Marcia L. Fudge (D-Ohio) said that, “It is well documented that a disproportionate share of stiff mandatory sentences for low-level, non-violent crimes typically impact low income populations and communities of color.”
Fudge continued: “The measures introduced by the Attorney General will provide a fair and balanced approach to sentencing while improving protection of our nation’s vulnerable communities.”
The Justice Department’s “Smart on Crime” initiative will focus five key provisions:
- Prioritizing prosecutions to focus on the most serious cases
- Reforming sentencing to eliminate unfair disparities and reduce overcrowded prisons.
- Pursuing alternatives to incarceration and low-level, non-violent crimes.
- Improving reentry to curb repeat offenses and re-victimization.
- Surging resources to violence prevention and protecting the most vulnerable populations.
“We must never stop being tough on crime,” said Holder. “But we must also be smarter on crime.”
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