The following editorial is republished from the Saturday, July 26 Chicago Tribune.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Attorney General Eric Holder don't agree on much. But they have reached a surprising convergence on one point about the ongoing government effort to combat drug use and trafficking: We incarcerate too many people for too long, a policy that wastes money and treats the least dangerous offenders with undue harshness. In Texas and nationally, that approach is giving way to a more frugal and targeted policy.
Last year, Holder announced that low-level, nonviolent suspects who are not part of criminal organizations would no longer be charged with crimes carrying long mandatory sentences. He also set out to reduce the sentences of some elderly drug offenders who have been serving time.
The U.S. Sentencing Commission had approved the attorney general's proposal to change federal sentencing guidelines to trim the length of most sentences for drug convictions. It recently voted to apply the reductions to current inmates, subject to the approval of judges.
The change will not mean these offenders will get off scot-free. It would trim the typical sentence by about 17 percent. So someone caught with 500 grams of powder cocaine or 28 grams of crack would get a maximum term of 63 months instead of 78.
Under this policy, the number of drug offenders in federal prisons, currently some 100,000, would fall by about 6,550 over the next five years. It would save money - the federal government currently lays out $6.4 billion a year on corrections - while preserving a substantial deterrent. After the Sentencing Commission vote, Holder said, "This is a milestone in the effort to make more efficient use of our law enforcement resources and to ease the burden on our overcrowded prison system."
The point here is not to give up on enforcing federal drug laws. It's to focus enforcement and punishment efforts on the criminals who play the biggest roles and present the most obvious danger instead of the small fry. Under the old rules, the least important participants in the drug trade ended up serving more time than the people they were working for.
That said, it's important not to overcorrect. As long as the federal drug laws remain in force, they need penalties stern enough to make anyone considering illegal activity think long and hard about whether it's worth the risk. Some judges wonder if the downside is big enough anymore.
The New York Times recently reported the case of a woman who was caught smuggling 1,000 grams of cocaine in food cans - and served one day in jail before being released to four months of home confinement. In another case, a judge who used to criticize excessive drug sentences went above what the guidelines now advise to impose a longer sentence on an offender who he thought was getting off too easy. "I never thought I'd see the day," marveled Judge Edward Korman.
Significant sentences are also useful to prosecutors in getting defendants to provide information about higher-ups. More lenient penalties mean some see no need to cooperate. So finding the right balance is important, and adjustments may be needed.
But the basic idea behind the new approach is sound, as Gov. Perry has demonstrated. Under him, Texas has relied less on incarceration and more on probation and treatment for first-time offenders, allowing it to avoid spending $2 billion to add 17,000 prison beds. But it also has cut crime by 25 percent.
Marc Levin, policy director of the Texas organization Right on Crime, has a good summary of Perry's approach that Holder might want to borrow: "Prison is good for people that we're scared of, but not people that we're mad at."