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Editorial: Prison Reform; Sidestepping Mandatory Minimums

It has been clear for many years now that one thing the United States still does better than any other country is to lock people up. With only 5 percent of the world’s population, America has 25 percent of its prisoners. According to the Justice Department, the U.S. population has grown by about one third over the past 30 years, but the incarceration rate has surged almost 800 percent. More than 219,000 inmates are currently serving federal sentences — nearly half for drug-related offenses — and the prisons are operating at about 40 percent above capacity.

This amounts to nothing less than a national scandal, and the Obama administration deserves credit for moving this week to address the human, moral and economic toll that this lock-’em-up philosophy exacts on individuals and the country as a whole. We only wish that the administration had engaged Congress in reforming the system, rather than sidestepping rules that need to be fundamentally overhauled.

A prime culprit in creating this sorry situation is mandatory minimum sentencing laws, including for drug possession, which became all the rage 25 years ago amid rising crime rates. We have always regarded mandatory minimum sentences as a terrible idea. If the purpose of the legal system is to dispense justice, then the particular circumstances of any particular crime and any particular defendant need to be weighed carefully by judges before a sentence is imposed. Yes, sometimes they make mistakes, but an inflexible regime of mandatory minimums ensures that injustice will be done more often than necessary.

This week, U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. announced a new policy under which prosecutors will omit listing the quantities of illegal substances when drafting indictments in low-level drug cases, as long as the defendants meet four criteria: their offense was non-violent and did not involve use of a weapon or a sale to minors; they are not leaders of a criminal organization; they have no ties to gangs or cartels; and they have no significant criminal history. The significance of leaving out the amount is that quantity is what triggers mandatory minimum sentences, although it would still be considered by judges when imposing sentence, according to The New York Times.

Ironically, in addressing this issue, the Obama administration is following the lead of several states of the conservative persuasion, such as Texas and Arkansas, which have successfully experimented with reducing sentences for low-level drug offenders, diverting them into treatment programs and expanding job training. Whereas those initiatives were approved by state legislatures, however, the Obama administration has relied on prosecutorial discretion to get around the mandatory minimum sentencing laws.

Yes, Republicans in Congress have raised — or lowered — obstruction to an art form, but this is one reform that appears to have appeal across the ideological divide, especially with crime rates at a 40-year low. The current system is hugely expensive — it cost $80 billion in 2010, according to Holder — and a fantastic waste of human life and potential. The right thing to do is for Congress to modify these ill-advised sentencing laws with the goal of restoring a measure of justice to the justice system. There’s no reason why that effort can’t be made at the same time the Justice Department moves unilaterally to address the issue.