Attorney General Eric Holder announced he would use prosecutorial discretion to avoid mandatory-minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders. That makes Holder a late arrival to the cause of criminal justice reform; they were doing it in Texas (and other states), write Vikrant Reddy and Marc Levin:
In 2007, the state’s Legislative Budget Board insisted that legislators would need to spend $2 billion on the 17,000 additional prison beds that would be necessary by 2012. Texas legislators were rolling in a multi-billion-dollar budget surplus at the time — but, led by house corrections-committee chairman Jerry Madden (a Republican from north Dallas), they opted to veer from Texas’s longstanding strategy of simply building more prisons. Instead, the legislators worked to develop a reform package that required a far smaller amount of money than would have been spent on prisons, and spent it on alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent offenders. These alternatives included drug courts, electronic monitoring, and enhanced parole and probation supervision. The reforms were signed into law by Governor Rick Perry. When 2013 finally arrived, Texas’s crime rate was at its lowest point since 1968, and the legislature had authorized three prison closures. Texas had succeeded while spending less on prisons.
Texas succeeded in part because, unlike the federal government, its courts are not cramped by mandatory-sentencing laws. Some conservatives applauded the mandatory minimums that were passed by the federal government (and many state governments) in the 1990s, but so did many liberals and correctional officers’ unions. (More incarceration, after all, means more union jobs.)
The Bureau of Prisons budget increased by about $197 million per year from 1980 to 2010; the current BOP budget is now 25 percent of the entire Department of Justice budget and is crowding out other important DOJ functions. On July 25, the department announced that, while national declines in crime were accompanied by declining prison populations for the third straight year, all of these decreases had come at the state level. The federal prison population actually increased. [National Review, August 14]
There are plenty of conservatives and Republicans who have been pushing to pare back the federal criminal code. See in particular the statement of the Right on Crime Initiative. As Reddy and Levin point out, unless Congress and the Obama administration work together to produce statutory changes, Holder’s administrative changes could be reversed at the whim of the next administration.