Tuesday, August 13, 2013

"Warehouse and To Forget"

Sari Horwitz with the Washington Post reports that Attorney General Eric Holder made an important announcement yesterday regarding the war on drugs - federal prosecutors will be instructed to use prosecutorial discretion to diminish prison sentences for minor drug offenses.  In fact, the AG goes even further to instruct his prosecutors to develop local guidelines to determine whether federal charges will even be brought in the first place.  No charge - no crime.

This is another instance in which the Executive Branch is circumventing the Legislative Branch to accomplish a policy objective.  Your opinion on the propriety of such a move is probably motivated almost entirely by your view of the underlying policy or this Administration.

For fiscal hawks, this is an opportunity to cut spending.  Here are some statistics from Horwitz's article:

The cost of incarceration in the United States was $80 billion in 2010, according to the Justice Department. While the U.S. population has increased by about a third since 1980, the federal prison population has grown by about 800 percent. Justice Department officials said federal prisons are operating at nearly 40 percent over capacity

$80 billion is more than the entire 2010 budgets for the Departments of Interior, Treasury, Labor, and Commerce combined.  It is four times the NASA.

Another part of Holder's speech stuck out for me - "And with an outsized, unnecessarily large prison population, we need to ensure that incarceration is used to punish, to deter and to rehabilitate — not merely to warehouse and to forget."

How "outsized" and "unnecessarily large" is our prison population?  More from Horwitz:

Although the United States is home to 5 percent of the world’s population, almost a quarter of the world’s prisoners are incarcerated in American prisons, according to the Justice Department. More than 219,000 federal inmates are behind bars, and almost half of them are serving time for drug-related crimes. 

An additional 9 million to 10 million people cycle through local jails in the United States each year.

The War on Drugs is often described as the "War on Poverty by other means".  There is a heavy dose of victimization implicit in those conversations, but the Attorney General of the United States describing the War on Drugs as a means to "warehouse and to forget" seems important.  To what end is an increase of 800% in prison population?  What problem are we solving?

I can't imagine anyone would suggest that sky-rocketing levels of imprisonment represents success.  You are certainly entitled to the opinion that drug use should invoke prison time, but I hope that opinion comes with a "what's next?"  10 of our 313 million are cycling in and out of prison every year.  If you want to find the intrusive hand of big government, that seems like an awfully good place to start.

The Attorney General made an important first step in determining that warehousing nonviolent addicts was not in furtherance of the public good.  We have far too many politicians interested in proving themselves "Tough" by beating up on the poor.  Over and over again, politics and crime are a nasty mix.  Sentences for white collar crimes max out around 10 years while drug sentences encompass multiple offenses for a single act with multi-decade sentences for each.  Crack cocaine has a heavier sentence than powder.  Breaches of the public trust are harder to prove by legislative immunity and leave the offender's pension undisturbed.

Justice is such a simple principle.  Funny how we spend so little time talking about it.

That's all for today.  Have a great Tuesday doing what you love!