On August 12, 2013, United States Attorney General Eric Holder issued a "Memorandum To The United States Attorneys And Assistant Attorney General For The Criminal Division" (Holder Memo).
I invite you all to read the memo....if you can't find it by a web search shoot me an email and I will send it to you in a PDF.
In his memo, Mr. Holder formally states what everyone associated with the criminal justice system has known for a long time. "Long sentences for low-level, non-violent drug offenses do not promote public safety, deterrence, and rehabilitation."
In a speech he delivered August 12th to the American Bar Association's House of Delegates in San Francisco, Attorney General Holder noted that "...widespread incarceration at the federal, state, and local levels is both ineffective and unsustainable. It imposes a significant economic burden--totaling $80 billion in 2010 alone--and it comes with human and moral costs that are impossible to calculate." (Mr. Holder's speech may also be found on the internet, and yes...I'd be happy to email folks a PDF copy).
According to our nation's top prosecutor, the U.S. population has increased by about a third since 1980 but the federal prison population has grown at an astonishing rate of 800 percent....such that the United States (with 5 percent of the world population) incarcerates almost a quarter of the world's prisoners.
And, as noted by the attorney general, all men are NOT equal when it comes to punishment in our current system. Mr. Holder's speech refers to a study (released last February) which found that black male offenders have received sentences nearly 20 percent longer than those imposed on white males convicted of similar crimes.
Long prison sentences for drug crimes are typically the product of two statutes: First, statutes that create mandatory minimum punishments for certain quantities of various drugs (for instance 21 USC 841(b) calls for a mandatory 10 year sentence for manufacturing or distributing 50 grams or more of actual methamphetamine). Second, recidivist statutes (21 USC 841(b)(B) makes it a mandatory 10 year sentence for 5 grams or more of actual methamphetamine if a person has a "prior conviction for a felony drug offense"). To invoke the recidivist penalty the government files a notice called an "851 notice" (21 USC 851).
In an opinion filed August 16, 2013, Judge Mark Bennett, United States District Judge for the Northern District of Iowa, analyzed the frequency with which recidivist enhancement are sought in the Northern District of Iowa compared with other districts. Judge Bennett found that an eligible defendant in the Northern District of Iowa was 2,532% more likely to receive a Section 851 enhancement than a similarly eligible defendant in the bordering District of Nebraska. (U.S. v. Young, CR 12-4107-MWB, August 16, 2013, p. 3).
The bottom line, stated by Attorney General Holder, is "It's clear--as we come together today--that too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long, and for no truly good law enforcement reason."
Just think what we could accomplish if a chunk of that $80 billion per year were used for drug treatment facilities and half-way houses.