Wednesday August 14, 2013

For years now people have been arguing that the United States needs to rethink the war on drugs that was launched in the early 1970s, and especially the mandatory minimum sentencing laws that went into effect in the mid-1980s.

It doesn't make sense to lock up non-violent drug offenders for five to 10 years when a better course of action would be to get them into a treatment program so they can get off drugs and become productive members of society. That would be a more effective solution to the drug problem, and from a practical standpoint far cheaper than building more prisons.

For years, however, these arguments were ignored by politicians and policymakers who wanted to appear tough on crime. Fortunately, the times they are a changin'.

"What we're seeing is many experts, academics and judges weighing in and saying that those policies have done more harm than good," Jeff Lindy, a former federal prosecutor, told The Morning Call newspaper out of Lehigh Valley, Pa.

Vermont already has taken a step in the right direction by becoming the 17th state to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana. The new law, which went into effect July 1, removes criminal penalties for possession of up to an ounce of marijuana and replaces them with tickets. In other words, these folks will be paying money into government coffers instead of adding to the burden of an expensive and already over-crowded prison system.

More good news came at the federal level on Monday when Attorney General Eric Holder announced a major shift in federal sentencing policies, targeting long mandatory terms that he said have flooded the nation's prisons with low-level drug offenders and diverted crime-fighting dollars that could be far better spent. Holder said the prison population "has grown at an astonishing rate -- by almost 800 percent" since 1980, according to an Associated Press report. Almost half the inmates are serving time for drug-related crimes.

In a three-page memo to all 94 U.S. Attorneys' offices around the country, Holder said rising prison costs have resulted in reduced spending on law enforcement agents, prosecutors and prevention and intervention programs. "These reductions in public safety spending require us to make our public safety expenditures smarter and more productive," the memo stated.

As a first step, Holder has instructed federal prosecutors to stop charging many nonviolent drug defendants with offenses that carry mandatory minimum sentences. His next step will be working with a bipartisan group in Congress to give judges greater discretion in sentencing. Holder said he also wants to divert people convicted of low-level offenses to drug treatment and community service programs and expand a prison program to allow for release of some elderly, non-violent offenders.

What's even more encouraging is that Holder's policy changes appear to have broad support from both sides of the political spectrum, including Republican Senator Rand Paul from Kentucky and Vermont's own Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy. The two already have introduced legislation to grant federal judges greater flexibility in sentencing, and Leahy, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, said his committee will hold a hearing on the bill next month.

Lindy, the former prosecutor, also praised Holder's new approach to dealing with low-level, non-violent drug offenders without gang affiliations. Calling it "a true sea-change" in Department of Justice policy, he said prosecutors would no longer be bound by Congress when it comes to mandatory minimum sentencing. And he disputed the myth that lighter sentences for federal drug offenders lead to greater recidivism.

"The lack of good public education, the lack of jobs, the lack of funding for drug programs - all of that leads to recidivism," he told the newspaper. "In study after study, academics and other experts find that severe punishment does not serve as the best deterrent for crime."

It's good that this message is finally getting through to the politicians and policymakers.