In a speech acclaimed across the political spectrum, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said Monday that the criminal justice system's handling of nonviolent drug offenders is a broken, costly mess.
Focusing on the deleterious effects of mandatory minimum sentencing laws in minor drug cases, Mr. Holder argued that the incarceration of 2.2 million people at a cost of more than $80 billion a year has proven ineffective and unsustainable.
He called for a fundamentally new approach, with an emphasis on improving the legal defense of the poor, a reduction of sentence disparities based on race, and early release of elderly nonviolent inmates and nonviolent drug offenders with no ties to gangs. He has already directed his 94 U.S. attorneys to develop new guidelines for deciding when federal charges should be filed in drug offense cases.
Mr. Holder's resolve is laudable, but federal prisons hold only 215,000 people, while state and local lockups have 1.9 million. The attorney general is using his bully pulpit to encourage state and local prosecutors and lawmakers to see the bad economics and unsatisfying result of warehousing relatively inconsequential offenders.
Mr. Holder told the lawyers that "too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long and for no good law enforcement reason" -- something that elected officials, Democrats and Republicans, are beginning to realize.
Fortunately, some states, including Pennsylvania, are already moving in the right direction with alternative sentencing programs and other experiments that aim to punish certain criminals without costly stays behind bars. Meanwhile, the Department of Corrections budget in Pennsylvania is $1.9 billion -- a cost that the cash-strapped commonwealth is finding more difficult to afford.
Attorney General Holder is exhibiting leadership in an area that demands similar action from state legislators to district attorneys. In the 21st century, being tough on crime means not being dumb on prosecution and sentencing.