This afternoon Attorney General Eric Holder will be addressing the annual convention of the American Bar Association. Copies of his speech have been released in advance to the news media. According to reports, the speech announces policy changes related to sentencing and the on-going problem of overincarceration in the United States. The factoid that boggles the mind is that the United States has about 5 percent of the world’s population, but we have about 25 percent of the world’s prisoners! During the 1990s and early 2000s we were building a prison about every week—and as soon as they were built, they filled up. Actually, many of our prisons are operating beyond their design capacity. The problem has been festering for years. Holder’s proposed changes are baby steps that fall way short of what needs doing. The drug war is responsible for the tidal wave of arrests and prosecutions, and prisoners in the United States. Ending the war is the key to this. At the very least, President Obama should be leading the debate on ending the war on marijuana, but he isn’t.
Attorney General Holder is basically ordering federal prosecutors to bypass mandatory sentence rules in certain situations. It is a small step. Most of the criminal cases in the United States are handled at the state level, so the impact of this federal move can be huge to the persons actually impacted, but small in terms of the impact on the overall system.
I recently discussed a proposal by Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) and Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) to scale back mandatory minimum sentences here.