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Changing the Priorities of a ‘Prison-Happy Country’

Legislatures should eliminate mandatory minimum sentences and allow courts to fashion alternatives to simultaneously reduce crime and mass incarceration.

November 14, 2014

Cross-posted on The Crime Report

Build it and they will come. So true. 

We’ve done many good things over the last 20 years to reduce violent crime. More communities across our country now employ strategic approaches to improve safety, ranging from community policing to the current Smart on Crime initiative. We should congratulate ourselves for these achievements. 

But we have made mistakes. One big one is promising states money to build prisons if they agreed to lengthen prison sentences. They did. Prisons sprang forth and have filled. We have incarcerated prisoners at a world-record pace, taking in the violent and the non-violent. 


The result should be no surprise. Federal and state prison budgets now eat one-third of the money available for the public good. Four states now spend more on prisons than they do on higher education. You must be kidding.

The United States Department of Justice, which includes the FBI, DEA, Marshal Service, Civil Rights enforcement, all grant money for state and local law enforcement, and all federal prosecutors, now feeds one-third of its total budget to the prisons. 

We are a prison-happy country, with five percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. Our prisons are overrun with non-violent offenders hit with mandatory minimum sentences or longer sentences than were previously imposed for the same crimes.   

Research now shows conclusively that longer prison sentences do not reduce crime. In fact, New York, New Jersey and California substantially reduced crime while reducing incarceration. How is this possible?

Prison punishes—that’s it. Prisons take people out of work. Prisons remove parents from children and from child support obligations. Prisons almost certainly guarantee that the prisoner returns home less educated, less trained and less employable. As a result, crime goes up, not down. The numbers don’t lie. 

So what’s the answer? 

We encourage prosecutors, police, probation officers and judges to identify and take a hard line against serious, violent offenders. This is the easy part. When done strategically and in coordination with other community efforts, this approach can be very effective. 

But this is only a piece of the puzzle. The hard part comes when we call on those same prosecutors, police, probation officers, and judges to explore alternatives for all other non-violent offenders. Portland, Oregon’s community prosecutions are great examples of available alternatives. But our current criminal justice priorities do not adequately encourage or reward these efforts to seek alternatives. We are pushing for a change in these priorities. 

We should encourage legislatures to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences and allow courts to fashion alternatives, in the hope that a reduction in prison population will free money for prison services. For example, restoring Pell grants would allow prisoners to complete college educations as was done before. 

We should improve mental health services. We have more mental health patients in prison than in all hospitals combined.

We should encourage communities and states to support after-school programs and mentoring efforts such as those occurring in New Orleans. We have an abundance of good ideas that have proven their worth. Let’s share them and use them! 

The Brennan Center for Justice’s recent publication, “Federal Prosecutions for the 21st Century,” focuses on success measures for federal prosecutors and suggests ways for U.S. Attorney’s Offices to reorient their practices toward the “twin goals of reducing crime and reducing mass incarceration.”

At a speech at the Brennan Center recently, Attorney General Eric Holder applauded the Center’s recommendations that federal prosecutors should prioritize reducing violence, incarceration, and recidivism. He acknowledged that the report’s new metrics “such as evaluating progress by assessing changes in local violent crime rates, numbers of federal prisoners initially found in particular districts, and changes in the three-year recidivism rate – lay out a promising roadmap for us to consider.“

We hope that the Justice Department continues to acknowledge the need for a shift in how we do business. Hopefully the next Attorney General will continue to build on the report’s ideas.

If not, then we might as well start trimming the staffs of judges, prosecutors, police, probation officers and public defenders so we can feed more of the money to the prisons.

You must be kidding, right?

Walter Holton is the former United States Attorney for the Middle District of North Carolina. Holton served as a member of the Attorney General’s Advisory Committee from 1999 to 2001, meeting monthly with Attorney General Janet Reno to evaluate and recommend policy for the U. S. Justice Department. He welcomes comments from readers.