Twenty years ago, George H.W. Bush’s Attorney General, William P. Barr, confronted the nadir of America’s crime epidemic with the conventional public policy wisdom of the time; he called on states across the nation to ramp up incarceration. Addressing Maryland’s first-ever summit on violent street crime, Barr told the state’s political and law enforcement leadership to “build more prison space … the choice is more prison space or more crime.” Two weeks prior, in Orlando, he had announced, “There is no other solution [but prisons] to take care of crime now.”
Today, the nation’s highest law enforcement official is taking a different tack. Two weeks ago, Attorney General Eric Holder appeared before the U.S. Sentencing Commission to announce his support for a proposal lowering the suggested penalties for certain drug crimes. “Over reliance on incarceration is not just financially unsustainable, it comes with human and moral costs that are impossible to calculate,” Holder testified, “The harshest penalties should be reserved for 'dangerous and violent drug traffickers.'”
The disparity between Holder’s approach now and Barr’s two decades ago reflects a dramatic shift in how incarceration is seen in America. Holder is campaigning to roll back our nation’s draconian approaches to crime control because there is now broad consensus across the political spectrum that the policies Barr promoted resulted in catastrophic consequences.
In Barr’s time, the problem was a nationwide crime epidemic. Now, we face a different crisis: a prison epidemic. American prisons are bursting with low-level, non-violent offenders who languish under lengthy sentences that are too severe for their crimes. Each prisoner costs taxpayers an average of $30,000 a year.
In 1992, when Barr urged states to build more prisons, our nation had 883,593 Americans behind bars. Today, the United States has the dubious distinction of serving as the world’s largest jailer, with more than 2.25 million Americans in prison. We have 5 percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of its prisoners. Much of the blame falls on Barr-era policies passed in the 1980s and 1990s, including truth in sentencing laws, mandatory minimums, sentencing enhancements, stricter drug laws and unprecedented funding for drug enforcement. Each played a role in exploding America’s incarcerated population.
In 2010 alone, state and federal governments spent $80 billion on incarceration. And of the 216,000 current federal inmates, nearly half are serving time for drug-related crimes. Sixty percent of those are imprisoned for nonviolent offenses. There is no evidence that this system improves public safety. But there is plenty that it harms our communities, our economy, and most importantly, is unjust.
While mass incarceration harms all Americans, it disproportionately affects Americans of color. Glaring racial disparities are evident throughout our criminal justice system. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, black men are more than six times as likely as white men to be incarcerated. They are more likely to be arrested and imprisoned for drug crimes, even though white men use drugs at higher rates.
These harsh criminal justice policies have torn families apart across the country—74 million children in the United States have a parent in prison. Our country is warehousing so many of our nation’s parents behind bars that last summer, Sesame Street introduced Alex, a Muppet who has a father in prison.
Where do we go from here?
Having an Attorney General who recognizes the problem is a start. Holder’s comments before the Sentencing Commission weren’t his first attempt to roll back the harsh policies of a bygone era. Over the past year, the Attorney General has spearheaded a “Smart on Crime” initiative, which is intended to promote fundamental reforms to the criminal justice system that will ensure the fair enforcement of federal laws, improve public safety and reduce recidivism by successfully preparing inmates for their re-entry into society.
That these actions have provoked little to no blowback from the political right illustrates both how bad the mass incarceration crisis has gotten, and the growing consensus in Washington that reform is necessary. In Congress, Republicans and Democrats are finding that criminal justice reform is one issue on which they can work together. The Senate Judiciary Committee has passed two bills this year to that effect. One is the Recidivism Reduction and Public Safety Act, which aims to reduce the federal prison population by helping released prisoners successfully renter their communities. The other, the Smarter Sentencing Act, would allow thousands of inmates to seek fairer sentences in accordance with 2010's Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the unjust sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine crimes.
At the state level, a handful of governors and legislatures have experimented with reforms that aim to reduce correctional populations and reinvest savings into evidence-based crime-reduction programs. Re-examining how criminal justice is funded in this country is an important step.
In 20 years, perhaps our future Attorney General will look back at our nation’s incarceration level today and say, “Never again.” But to get there, we’ll need a stronger, sustained effort from policymakers in both parties, in the states and in Washington.