Attorney General Eric Holder is taking on prison overpopulation and spiraling costs by taking aim at mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug crimes. In comments to the American Bar Association this week, he said, "We will start by fundamentally rethinking the notion of mandatory minimum sentences for drug-related crimes."
With prisons nationwide operating at 40 percent above capacity, Holder has a point. We either have to build a lot more prisons, or take a look at the how and why of prison sentences.
For a long time, our nation's response to drug crimes and other criminal trends has been "Lock 'em up and throw away the key!" It is a simple and satisfying solution, but one that oversimplifies. It has loaded up our prisons with non-violent offenders, some of whom might benefit more from chemical dependency treatment and probation. Many of them come out of prison well-schooled in criminal procedures and techniques they learned from more hardened inmates.
"One size fits all" doesn't work real well in clothing, and it doesn't work that well in criminal justice. Mandatory minimum sentence laws have taken discretion away from judges, who are in the best position to decide what form of punishment works best for individual offenders. Pre-sentence investigations can help them discern whether this person would benefit from probation and treatment, while that person really needs to be locked up.
We should let judges make these decisions,.