Holder right to want to get low-level offenders out of prison

Monday, August 19, 2013
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The war on drugs hasn’t done much to stop drug use in this country — far from it — but it’s done a commendable job for the prison industry. Since the “war” was launched in earnest three decades ago, state and federal prison populations have soared fivefold, costing taxpayers $80 billion a year.

Many of those prisoners are low-level, nonviolent drug offenders — people who would benefit more from treatment than incarceration. So U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder’s announcement of a major shift in federal sentencing policies, aimed at reducing the automatic imprisonment of thousands of low-level drug offenders, is welcome news. It’s not just a more humane way to deal with the issue, but a more economically feasible way.

The big problem are laws requiring mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders, based on the quantity and type of drugs they’re arrested with, and sentencing guidelines that allow for little discretion.

Yes, drug offenders are lawbreakers and deserve to be punished, but the mandatory minimums are often much longer than necessary to prove the point or to deter. If these people didn’t hurt anyone in the commission of their crimes, and seem unlikely to if they’re released (i.e. they weren’t gang members), then locking them up for decades seems excessive.

Indeed, a number of states, including New York, have seen the light on mandatory minimums and, as a result, are spending a lot less money incarcerating low-level drug offenders. The number of New Yorkers imprisoned for nonviolent crimes has reportedly dropped 62 percent since 2000, enabling the state’s prison population to drop roughly 2 percent per year. At $55,000 a year per prisoner, that represents pretty good savings.

The federal prison system, currently at 140 percent of capacity, could benefit tremendously from Holder’s proposed changes. So could tens of thousands of prisoners, including many elderly and infirm ones who pose little threat to public safety.

Legislation in Congress aimed at reducing mandatory minimums and giving judges greater latitude in sentencing reportedly has bipartisan support, and would address this problem regardless of who the president or attorney general is. Even better.

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August 19, 2013
8:12 a.m.
Will1960 says...

"Yes, drug offenders are lawbreakers and deserve to be punished, but the mandatory minimums are often much longer than necessary to prove the point or to deter."


Your editorial paints with a broad when you lump in all drug offenders, together. Also the editorial doesn't go far enough. Portugal de-criminalized all drugs resulting in lower drug use, drug overdoses and drug-related crime. Our drug policy is a massively stupid one which enriches cartels, gangs and the private prison industry. I wish the Gazette would examine who profits from the drug war and write an editorial about those folks.

August 19, 2013
10:57 a.m.
reader1 says...

The vast majority of federal drug offenders do not need treatment, they are not addicts they are sellers and in order for the federal government to get involved there sales need to involve extremely large quantities and/or ongoing criminal enterprises (e.g., drug gangs). And, while the act of a sale is non-violent, people involved in the drug trade will tell you they need to be armed due to turf battles or more commonly drug ripoffs.

Like all systems and organization, ongoing evaluation is necessary to ensure the system accomplishes what it is supposed to. But, any evaluation requires an accurate assessment of the facts and the system being caused by a roundup of harmless addicts is not an accurate evaluation.

August 19, 2013
4:35 p.m.
wmarincic says...

Reader1, you of all people should know that many times minor players (drug addicts) get pulled into these indictments as co-conspirators and we are just wasting money and resources on them. Many of these addicts are also indicted in order to turn states evidence and many times the Kingpin is given a plea deal while the minions are sentenced to long prison terms. I'm 100% pro police but for once the useless democrats are doing something right.

August 19, 2013
8:06 p.m.
wmarincic says...

All this does is give judges back the power to sentence a person knowing the whole story.

August 20, 2013
10:40 a.m.
reader1 says...

You're wrong. First of all, Holder is referring to federal cases. The feds only get involved in trafficking cases when there are major amounts involved and/or the activities of drug groups/gangs are causing havoc in the community. Most drug sellers are not addicts rather they are people who have looked at their situation in life and made a reasoned decision that the rewards outweigh the risks and they would be better off selling drugs than working a regular job. There may be a few addicts interspersed in these crews but for the most part, these guys are in it for economic reasons.

I am not aware of any case in which the major actors in these drug round-ups are given shorter sentences than their workers.

And, at the state level, for the past decade, the practice has been to divert those who were addicted into drug court. This is an intelligent use of discretion but is not without problems. How is addiction established? Although only anecdotal evidence, some individuals have used alleged addiction to get a more lenient sentence.

Second, anyone familiar with the history of the federal drug sentencing guidelines knows they were implemented due to inequitable sentencing disparity. That is why the discretion was limited in the first place.

Finally, the point remains - if you sell drugs, you most likely have a firearm or have access to one. And, most important will resort to its' use due to the requirements of the trade. Holder and others are less than accurate in painting this picture of the drug trade as a group of non-violent individuals. And, unless you legalize drugs - there will still be a lucrative market for them with the associated violence.

Not saying the sentencing guideline are not in need of revision, but, Holder's reasoning is not based on all the facts.

August 20, 2013
11:14 a.m.
wmarincic says...

Actually reader1 I'm not wrong and I too am speaking of Fed cases. Almost always the mules that are running these drugs to Schenectady from NYC are almost always drug addicts, you should know that. Has it been that long since you were on the street? Just for the sake of argument, Operation Rough Rider, 135 Hells Angels and associates arrested. Gary Harwood "Gorilla" the focus of the operation. Harwood admitted to murdering 3 people if I remember right but was given a pass and only 12 years for turning states evidence on the rest for low level drug crimes. This happens every day, There are thousands of low level criminals that had it not been for the minimum guidelines would be out. As far as sentence disparity, if you have two people that are arrested with a half ounce of crack and one has been arrested 10 times and did small terms or probation and the other is his first offense and there is a question if it is even really his, there would certainly be a sentence disparity and the judge should have the right to make that decision. That is why we pay them.

August 21, 2013
8:02 a.m.
reader1 says...

Don't know anything about that case, but, most of the cases I have followed involve the inner city drug trade. And, for the most part, the main players get hit the hardest.

The issues re: sentence disparity were bigger and broader than that. Judges need discretion and drug laws need to be reviewed, however, Holder is basing his argument on some flawed assumptions.

August 21, 2013
9:34 p.m.
wmarincic says...

Look, I can't stand Holder or Obama, I think they should both be indicted, I also think that he is doing the right thing here for once. We all know that if they do change these laws they will be nothing like what Holder is promoting. Hopefully it will work better than California just opening it's doors to violent offenders. I know my opinion does not mean much to you but from what I hear you are doing a pretty good job. So on this we can agree to disagree.

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