Pubdate: Wed, 14 Aug 2013
Source: San Francisco Examiner (CA)
Copyright: 2013 SF Newspaper Company LLC


U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder's announcement that the federal
government is shifting its tactics in charging low-level drug
offenders is a long-overdue reassessment of a failed policy that has
unduly filled U.S. prisons since the 1980s. But federal and state laws
should be altered to codify these reforms.

Holder, speaking at an American Bar Association convention in San
Francisco on Monday, said that he has sent a three-page memo to the
nation's 94 U.S. Attorneys' offices, instructing them to stop charging
many nonviolent drug defendants with crimes that carry mandatory
minimum sentences. He said the reform is meant to stop filling prisons
with such offenders and instead steer them to drug-treatment programs
and community-service programs.

The change follows the lead of many states and municipalities,
including San Francisco, that already have directed money away from
punitive sentencing and invested in rehabilitation programs.

In The City, current policies at the Police Department and District
Attorney's Office treat low-level, nonviolent drug offenses as a low
priority. When they do charge such cases they tend to emphasize
alternative sentencing that favors rehabilitation over jail time. A
recent article in The San Francisco Examiner highlighted the effects
of this policy, with police arrests for drug offenses plummeting from
9,832 in 2008 to just 1,534 in 2012. Police Chief Greg Suhr said that
change allows his department to better use its resources for serious
crimes, and we agree.

And such reforms are not limited to liberal coastal cities. Seventeen
states have directed money from prison construction to be used for
treatment and supervision services. Texas, Kentucky, Georgia, North
Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania are among the states that Holder
mentioned as having put reforms into place for nonviolent offenders.

Holder noted that the population in federal prisons has grown by
almost 800 percent since the early 1980s. Nearly half of the 219,000
inmates behind bars are there for drug-related crimes.

Holder's proclamation focused on people who are not the leaders or
organizers of drug rings. He is not proposing to abandon prison
sentences in all such cases. But he was on point when he said that "we
need to ensure that incarceration is used to punish, deter and
rehabilitate - not merely to convict, warehouse and forget."

Perhaps the federal government is finally realizing that throwing
money away housing low-level offenders is not the solution, and that
using our limited resources for rehabilitation is far more worthwhile.
But Holder's proposal is not permanent, and future administrations
will have the power to undo it. True reform needs to be written into
federal law, which will be a herculean task with the partisan
bickering that dominates Washington, D.C. State laws also should be
reformed to end draconian drug sentencing laws for nonviolent offenders.

These reforms are not about being soft on crime, but rather about
wisely spending government's limited resources on penalizing the worst
criminals and working to rehabilitate the rest. The money saved from
housing inmates who could be steered elsewhere would be better spent
on other needed law enforcement.
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