Sunday at the American Bar Association’s annual meeting in San Francisco, Attorney General Eric Holder announced his plans to reform Justice Department sentencing policies in an effort to stem the epidemic of mass incarceration. Among his proposals were avoiding minimum mandatory prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenders without gang or cartel affiliations, considering release of individuals who are not a danger to the public, and increasing drug treatment and diversion programs as alternatives to incarceration.
I first heard the Attorney General speak of his intentions last year at a JFK Library forum, when a member of the audience asked him what he hoped his legacy would be as Attorney General. He answered easily and with certainty: “prison reform.” This caught my attention. As a prosecutor in Miami, I saw firsthand the effects of the “War on Drugs”: defendants with pages upon pages of priors completely devoid of violent crimes; directives from my chiefs to offer credit time served (usually the one night spent in jail before appearing before the judge) for a defendant’s first few drug possession offenses before increasing jail time in increments for subsequent arrests (so they knew We Were Serious); and courtroom dockets so overwhelmed with nonviolent drug cases that a substitute judge would periodically preside in our courtroom to offer one-day-only lowball pleas in a “plea blitz”, which shielded the regular judge from possible accusations of vindictive sentencing if a defendant was “launched” following a conviction at trial.
I also saw defendants request to serve straight jail time instead of probation pleas with conditions to attend Narcotics Anonymous, undergo drug testing, or complete community service. The threat of a probation violation was too great in the face of conditions they knew would be difficult for them to complete.
And yet, the public has overwhelmingly embraced the idea that being “tough on crime” is synonymous with incarceration, which is why I found the Attorney General’s announcement Sunday incredibly bold and refreshing. Alternative sentencing and drug courts remain among the first programs sacrificed to budget cuts, and the topic stays out of the political conversation – in the most recent election cycle, neither President Obama nor Mitt Romney addressed the War on Drugs in their campaigns. Only the third party debate discussed the need for reform.
Meanwhile, last month in South Boston, Edward Alemany, alleged to have murdered South Boston resident Amy Lord as she left her home in broad daylight, was revealed to have been a suspect in an attack on another young woman last September. Everyone is asking how he could have remained in the community even then given his lengthy (and at times violent) priors, and why the assigned detective failed to return calls to the crime lab regarding evidence in the September attack. Taken in isolation, it certainly sounds like the detective was the problem. But the bigger question is, why did he abandon the investigation? Could it be that most such investigations lead to a dead end, and work on cases that don’t get solved is not valued by the police department? When the police get more recognition for making a sweep of drug arrests instead of hunting down evidence in investigation of violent crimes, and the glut of those drug arrests prevent prosecutors from properly evaluating cases, human error can be just a contributing factor in a broken system.
The Attorney General said that “we cannot simply prosecute or incarcerate our way to becoming a safer nation.” Minimum mandatory sentences and similar laws proclaimed as “tough on crime” may be exceedingly harsh for an individual offense, but do nothing to deter crime on a wider level and obscure the true threats to the community.
The Attorney General’s proposals are needed measures to allocate resources away from incarceration based on fear, allowing for more focus on known violent offenders – the ones who leave their driver’s license behind at the scenes of their crimes.