The main point of Holder’s speech was that the United States is locking up too many people. As has been widely reported, America has about 5 percent of the world’s population, but about 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. We have a lot of people behind bars — about 2.5 million.
It took us 200 years to incarcerate the first million, but we’ve managed to lock up the second million in only the last 30 years. During the 1990s and early 2000s we were building one prison a week on average. And those prisons were quickly filled up. Many prisons are now operating beyond their design capacity.
Holder says it is time we “face this reality.” Facing reality is always sound advice, but it’s painfully obvious. Maybe next month he can go to Detroit and tell us about the potential risk of bankruptcy there.
The drug war has been the engine driving the exploding prison population, but President Obama and Holder do not want to face that fact. While other countries like Portugal and Uruguay are embracing drug decriminalization, the Attorney General is only prepared to tinker with some new approaches to drug sentencing.
The first idea is to direct federal prosecutors to use their charging discretion in ways that will minimize triggering mandatory minimum sentences. Most of the drug cases come from state criminal systems, so impact of this change in the federal system will be small. Holder also set forth criteria that will further limit the impact. The drug offender must not have connections to gangs or cartels, for example. Depending on how “connections” are defined, that could severely limit this policy change since cartels control the black market drug distribution networks.