In August, Attorney General Eric Holder earned plaudits from the criminal justice community for announcing the Justice Department would no longer seek mandatory minimum sentences for low level, nonviolent, non-gang related offenders. This past Thursday, Holder announced that this new policy will apply to those defendants already charged but not yet sentenced, which will affect offenders and families across the country. In expanding the reach of his new “Smart on Crime” approach to prosecutorial discretion, Holder again illustrates that the DOJ is doing its part to address mass incarceration. The ball is now in Congress’s court to enact meaningful legislation that will create a permanent shift away from a damaging incarceration-centric system.
With almost 219,000 prisoners incarcerated today – compared to about 28,000 prisoners in 1980 – the criminal justice system’s unnecessary reliance on mass incarceration is rightfully gaining critical attention. This week on the Hill, several hearings and panels in both the House and Senate assessed the criminal justice system’s crisis points – from inadequate indigent defense, to the ineffectiveness of mandatory minimum penalties, to alleviating prison overcapacity problems driven by unduly harsh sentencing laws. Reforms in these areas are necessary, and in the coming months Congress will have the opportunity to consider various bipartisan legislative proposals to address America’s mass incarceration crisis.
Though each has its own distinct benefits, the Justice Safety Valve Act and the Smarter Sentencing Act provide pivotal steps towards resolving some of the most pressing concerns in the system because both offer front-end reforms that could reduce the length of offenders’ sentences. As Holder seeks reforms through discretionary policy changes, Congress should enact legislation that will reduce the length of time offenders spend in prison. Such simultaneous efforts would do much to address these two key drivers of mass incarceration in the United States.