This week U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder, Jr. announced plans to reform several criminal justice policies, most notably curtailing mandatory minimum sentences for low-level, nonviolent drug offenders, in an attempt to reduce prison crowding and return offenders to community supervision.
The change to mandatory minimum sentences would bar prosecutors from specifying drug quantity in indictments for drug offenders who did not use violence, weapons or sell to minors; are not leaders of a criminal organization; have no significant ties to large-scale gangs or cartels; and have no significant criminal history.
Holder introduced related policies that shift the responsibility for more crimes to state courts, increase the use of alternatives to incarceration including drug-treatment programs, and expand a program of “compassionate release” for nonviolent elderly inmates. With prisons operating at nearly 40 percent above capacity, Holder said these policies aim to address prison crowding and related fiscal pressures from the high cost of building, operating and maintaining prisons.
Holder’s policies also aim to reduce recidivism by breaking the cycle of crime. Alternatives to incarceration such as reentry programs are designed to rehabilitate low-level, nonviolent offenders and reduce the likelihood they will reoffend. Such programs include job training, classes that teach life skills and GED preparation, drug treatment, cognitive behavioral therapy aimed to change criminal thinking and more—all of which aim to help offenders become productive, successful members of their communities.
Many states already began lessening mandatory minimums and exploring alternatives to incarceration prior to the recent federal policy changes. In Texas and Arkansas, for example, policy makers sought to save taxpayers money and ease jail crowding by reducing terms for low-level drug offenders, releasing elderly or well-behaved inmates early, and expanding job training and reentry programs. These policies have helped reduce prison counts in Texas in particular, which has saved taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars that would have been needed to build more prison space had the state’s prison population continued to soar.
BI Incorporated, which provides a variety of electronic monitoring products, services and programs, and GEO Reentry Services, which provides evidence-based treatment and training in the community, have seen a rise in the use of alternatives to detention in recent years. In many jurisdictions, these programs have reduced recidivism and lowered correctional costs.