The Justice Department in its recent annual report on federal sentencing issues wisely acknowledged that public safety can be maximized without maximizing prison spending. As it noted, the growing federal prison population, now more than 218,000 inmates, and a prison budget of almost $6.2 billion are “incompatible with a balanced crime policy and are unsustainable.”
The department calls for reforms “to make our public safety expenditures smarter and more productive.” Yet it fails to address sentencing changes that should be made, which would significantly reduce the problem of overincarceration in federal prisons.
Last fall, the United States Sentencing Commission issued a comprehensive report that said mandatory minimum sentences are often “excessively severe,” especially for people convicted of drug-trafficking offenses, who make up more than 75 percent of those given such sentences. Mandatory minimums have contributed in the last 20 years to the near tripling of federal prisoners, with more than half the prisoners now in for drug crimes.
There is no good evidence that long mandatory sentences deter crime. There is very good evidence that older prisoners (45 and up) are the least dangerous and that many should be released.
The Justice Department report does not mention mandatory minimum sentences or their major contribution to overincarceration in federal prisons. And it fails to urge Congress to make repealing mandatory minimums a high priority, as it should. It does not mention releasing older prisoners, which the Federal Bureau of Prisons has the power to do.
Nor does it mention adjusting its own policies on drug cases so it would put away fewer offenders not considered dangerous. About 25,000 people were convicted of federal drug offenses last year, almost the same number as during the Bush administration in 2008 — a substantial proportion in low-level roles of drug trafficking, according to the Sentencing Commission.
The department sensibly calls for more cost-effective prison policies, but that would require reconsideration of the basic purpose of punishment. The unsustainable federal prison budget and the rising inmate population reflect the country’s long, wasteful embrace of retribution. Both numbers are higher than they need to be for public safety.
Via @ The New York Times