When federal officials began to free 6,000 prisoners, it dealt a blow to the lock-'em-up approach that has made the U.S. home to the world's largest prison population.
That approach has never been sustainable for both economic and social reasons. Last year the U.S. spent $7.3 billion to keep 209,000 people locked up in federal detention. The vast drain on resources coupled with decades of declining crime has forced a national re-examination of the wisdom of mass incarceration. There should be no turning back.
The release Friday was the first real test of the nation's tolerance for a significant shift in the correctional system. Put in motion a year ago when the U.S. Sentencing Commission reduced sentencing guidelines for nonviolent offenders, the move is a long-overdue effort to curb excessive sentences and reduce the prison population. Still, the release of 6,000 prisoners hardly makes a dent in the overall prison population. There are more than 2 million prisoners in the U.S.
The effort comes on the heels of another, even more significant move to overhaul punishment in the United States. Earlier this month, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley, a conservative Republican from Iowa, and the liberal Democrat Sen. Richard J. Durbin from Illinois introduced what they hailed as the biggest criminal justice reform in a generation.
The rare bipartisan bill would eliminate mandatory life sentences for three-time, nonviolent drug offenders and in some cases provide judges greater discretion to sentence less than a mandatory term. It would also ban juvenile solitary confinement. Many of the new rules could be applied retroactively, and up to 6,500 people could be released.
In February, the Brennan Center for Justice released a report looking into the decades-long crime decline. The authors concluded there's no clear link between increasing incarceration rates and declining crime rates; in fact, prison's effectiveness as a deterrent has subsided.
This slow march away from harsh punishments toward a more sane and rehabilitative approach is the right path for the nation's justice system.