The Free Press, Mankato, MN

Editorials

August 14, 2013

Change drug crime laws, cost

Why it matters: When Judges lost sentencing power, incarceration rates and costs skyrocketed

The announcement Monday from U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder that he would direct U.S. attorneys to stop imposing mandatory minimum sentences in low-level drug cases wasn’t about going soft on crime. It’s a move that will let judges do their job, improve overall justice and go easier on taxpayers as well.

Holder directed 94 federal U.S. attorneys to no long impose the mandatory minimum sentences set nearly three decades ago. Those laws were imposed at a time of exploding drug crimes, particularly crack cocaine. Those get-tough on crime policies that were slam dunk political moves expanded the U.S. prison population by 800 percent when the population as a whole only grew by 30 percent, according to a report by The New York Times.

With that growth in the prison population came huge costs for building and maintaining prisons. It also tied the hands of judges and prosecutors who had no choice in sentencing. They ended up putting offenders who needed addiction help into a prison where they not only didn’t get help but in many cases became worse.

In fact, there is bipartisan support in Congress for changing the mandatory minimum sentencing laws even though Holder has authority to make changes in policy through U.S. attorneys.

Democrats and Republicans have proposed legislation giving judges more discretion in sentencing. The laws and Holder’s action will likely save taxpayers tens of millions of dollars and put drug offenders in places where they can contribute to society instead of being a constant burden.

In fact, several states with conservative leaders have already taken aim at the mandatory sentencing laws. According to a report in The Washington Post, Kentucky will reduce its prison population by 3,000 over the next 10 years and save about $400 million in the process. The Kentucky program aims at leaving prison space for the most violent offenders while using community-based programs and alternatives for the drug offenders.

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