Among the casualties of a failed war on drugs that has spanned more than three decades are bloated prisons that cost the nation nearly $90 billion a year. With only 5 percent of the world’s population, the United States holds 25 percent of its prisoners; more than 2 million people are locked up in this country.
The U.S. Sentencing Commission, which sets penalty guidelines for federal judges, is considering changes that would shorten average sentences for nonviolent drug offenders by roughly one year — to 51 months from 63 months. That would result in a 17 percent sentence reduction for the average offender.
The changes would not affect the 1.6 million people who are locked up in state prisons around the country, including more than 51,000 in Pennsylvania. They would cover only the 215,000 prisoners in the federal system, half of whom are serving time for drug crimes.
The Justice Department estimates that the proposed changes would lower the federal prison population by 6,500 inmates over the next five years. That’s a small step toward a more cost-effective and just criminal justice system.
Members of the sentencing commission should approve the changes. If they do, the new guidelines will take effect in November. Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. has endorsed the plan, which several Republicans in Congress also support.
Earlier this year, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved the bipartisan Smarter Sentencing Act, the first major reconsideration of federal mandatory minimum drug sentencing laws since the Nixon administration. In a related move, Mr. Holder is pushing for eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug crimes.
Some prosecutors oppose the proposed changes. They argue that saving money should not influence public safety policy, and that the sentencing reductions would undermine their ability to pressure low-level drug offenders to cooperate in cases against drug kingpins.
Neither argument is compelling. It’s true that strapped state budgets drive some criminal justice reforms. Pennsylvania spends $1.9 billion a year on prisons — more than it spends on higher education. In the real world, costs always play a role in public policy.
As to the sentences, modestly lowering federal prison terms for drug offenses will not impede criminal investigations. People want to avoid prison sentences, whether for four years or 10. Jacking up penalties simply to pressure defendants to cooperate is neither practical nor ethical.
Since the late 1970s, the U.S. prison population has skyrocketed to morally unacceptable and economically unsustainable levels. Three decades of misguided policies won’t reverse themselves overnight. The proposed changes in federal sentencing guidelines, however, would be a big step toward helping the nation change course.