Pubdate: Sun, 14 Aug 2016
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2016 The New York Times Company
Author: Eric H. Holder Jr
Note: Eric H. Holder Jr. was the attorney general of the United 
States from 2009 to 2015.


Washington - As a college student in Virginia, Corey Jacobs started 
selling drugs with the help of a group of friends to make some extra 
money. A Bronx native, Mr. Jacobs was no kingpin, and no aspect of 
their drug conspiracy involved violence. Now age 46, Mr. Jacobs has 
served 16 years of a sentence of life without parole in the federal system.

No question, Corey Jacobs should have gone to prison for his felony. 
But does he deserve to die there?

His sentencing judge does not think so. Judge Henry Coke Morgan Jr. 
wrote in a letter supporting clemency for Mr. Jacobs that had the law 
not mandated a life sentence, he would not have imposed one for a 
first felony conviction.

Sadly, Mr. Jacobs is no anomaly. There are thousands like him serving 
sentences in our federal and state systems that are disproportionate 
to their crimes. The financial cost of our current incarceration 
policy is straining government budgets; the human and community costs 
are incalculable.

Today, a rare bipartisan consensus in favor of changing 
drug-sentencing laws presents an opportunity to improve the fairness 
and efficiency of America's criminal justice system. But to build on 
this coalition for reform, which includes senior law enforcement 
officials, we need action in Congress.

In February 2015, President Obama convened a group of lawmakers - 
including the Republican senators Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Rand 
Paul of Kentucky and the Democratic senators Dick Durbin of Illinois 
and Cory Booker of New Jersey - to build support for sweeping 
reforms. But the momentum has slowed thanks to opposition from a 
small group of Republican congressmen using language dredged from the 
past. One, Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, even claimed recently that 
"we have an under-incarceration problem."

The Republican presidential nominee, Donald J. Trump, is now fanning 
fears about the level of crime in America, which is actually at 
historic lows. Such pandering is a reminder of how we got here in the 
first place.

A few numbers help to illustrate the scale of the problem. From the 
late 1970s, America's incarceration rate more than quadrupled, to 
over 700 per 100,000 people from about 130; compare that with Russia, 
for example, which imprisons about 450 people per 100,000. Between 
1970 and 2005, America's prison and jail population increased 
sevenfold, to approximately 2.2 million from about 300,000.

The United States has about 5 percent of the world's population, yet 
about 22 percent of its known prisoner population. In 2010, it cost 
about $80 billion per year to house these people in our prisons and jails.

Some more numbers: Controlling for other factors, the United States 
Sentencing Commission found that between December 2007 and September 
2011, black male defendants received sentences 20 percent longer than 
their white counterparts. From 1983 to 1997, the number of 
African-Americans sent to prison for drug offenses went up more than 
26-fold, compared with a sevenfold increase for whites. By the early 
2000s, more than twice as many African-Americans as whites were in 
state prisons for drug offenses.

Individual responsibility must always be a primary consideration in 
deciding sentences, but we must also acknowledge that there is racial 
bias in the criminal justice system. The disparity in incarceration 
rates has bred distrust, alienating communities of color from those 
who serve valiantly in law enforcement.

The Justice Department has pioneered reform. Three years ago, as 
attorney general, I established the Smart on Crime initiative to 
reduce draconian mandatory minimum sentencing for low-level drug 
offenses and encourage more investment in rehabilitation programs to 
tackle recidivism.

The preliminary results are very encouraging. Over the last two 
years, federal prosecutors went from seeking a mandatory minimum 
penalty for drug trafficking in two-thirds of cases to doing so in 
less than half of them - the lowest rate on record. The initiative 
may not be solely responsible, but 2014 saw the first consecutive 
drop in the federal prison population in more than three decades, 
coinciding with a falling crime rate.

Those who argue that without the hammer of a mandatory minimum 
sentence defendants won't cooperate are wrong - in fact, the rate of 
cooperation held steady under the initiative, and the rate of guilty 
pleas remained constant. The system remained effective and became 
fairer. Reform has not made us less safe.

But there's a limit to what the Justice Department can accomplish on 
its own. Both the Senate and House are now considering comprehensive 
criminal justice reform bills that could limit the use of mandatory 
minimum sentences and give judges more power to not impose them. This 
would be a promising start, but reform must go much further.

Mandatory minimum sentences should be eliminated for many offenses, 
and where they are still applied, their length should be reduced. The 
legislative proposals necessarily reflect a compromise, but we must 
ensure that they go far enough: The judiciary needs greater 
discretion in imposing mandatory minimums, as do our prosecutors in 
seeking them.

Given the absence of parole in the federal system, we should increase 
the amount of sentence-reduction credit available to inmates with 
records of good conduct. And all offenders, regardless of their 
designated risk level, should get credit for participating in 
rehabilitation programs.

Federal drug courts provide proven alternatives to incarceration for 
men and women willing to do the hard work of recovery. We should 
increase investment in these programs, with a target of a court in 
every federal district within five years.

There is still a disparity in sentencing for offenses relating to 
crack and powder cocaine, chemically identical substances. Given the 
policy's differential racial impact, which erodes confidence in the 
justice system, this disparity must go. In the light of recent 
events, we can't afford criminal justice policies that reduce the 
already fragile trust between minority communities and law 
enforcement agencies.

The recidivism rate remains too high. We must remember that at least 
95 percent of prisoners in state jails will eventually be released. 
They should have more support for their return to society, and we can 
increase their chances of making a successful transition by offering 
them the tools they need.

Mere familiarity is not a good reason to prolong a policy that's not 
working. There can be no compromise on public safety, but we need a 
new approach: About a third of the Justice Department's budget now 
goes to the Bureau of Prisons - and in the absence of change, that 
proportion will grow. Reform would bring not only more fairness, but 
also fiscal benefits. Today, the rate and length of incarceration in 
this country is unprecedented and unsustainable. The success of the 
Smart on Crime initiative proves we can be safely bold about reform.

Whatever the outcomes of the bills before Congress and the 
presidential election, the Justice Department existing reforms must 
be preserved. Important as they are, all these initiatives have a 
bearing only on the federal justice system, which houses about 10 
percent of the prison population. For the federal effort to be a 
template for reform in the states, where most prisoners are detained, 
Congress must lead.

The nation's lawmakers must stiffen their spines, ignore divisive 
language and schedule votes in this congressional session on reform 
legislation. An opportunity like this comes once in a generation. We 
must not miss it.

The over-reliance on mandatory minimum sentences must come to an end. 
Corey Jacobs - and others like him - have paid their debt to society.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom