Deputy Attorney General James Cole spoke at the annual New York State Bar Association meeting and focused on a glaring problem in the Criminal Justice System: the huge prison population.
Mr. Cole said that the Justice Department recognized that the overwhelming prison population was a threat to public safety, not because it was taking dangerous criminals off the streets, but because it was taking too many non-violent individuals away from their families and throwing them into prison.
"Over half of the federal prison population is there for drug offenses. Some are truly dangerous people, who threaten the safety of our communities and need to be taken off the streets for a long time. But others are lower level drug offenders, many with their own drug abuse issues, who fall into the all too common vicious cycle of drug abuse, crime, incarceration, release — and then the cycle repeats."
Last year alone, we spent $6.5 Billion on our prisons. Mr. Cole knows that every dollar we spend on prisons is a dollar we can not spend on "supporting our prosecutors and law enforcement agents in their fight against violent crime, drug cartels, public corruption, financial fraud, human trafficking, and child exploitation...In other words, if we don’t find a solution to the federal prison population problem, public safety is going to suffer."
Mr. Cole believes that we should change our "tough on crime" approach and instead adopt a policy of being "smart on crime." Because many of the people currently in prison were sentenced under outdated laws that have since been amended and are no longer seen as appropriate, the Department of Justice should review these cases and consider granting commutations of sentence. This would shrink our prison population and free up more dollars for prosecutors and law enforcement to go after dangerous criminals.
Granted, many individuals currently in prison for drug offenses did commit crimes, and have presented dangers to society in some capacity. Mr. Cole addressed this issue saying, "...Our prisons include many low-level drug offenders. Now, let there be no mistake, even the low-level drug offenders cause harm to people through their criminal actions and many need to be incarcerated. I don’t want to minimize the impact of their behavior... They were properly held accountable for their criminal conduct. However, some of them, because of the operation of sentencing laws on the books at the time, received life sentences, or the equivalent of a life sentence, for limited conduct. For our criminal justice system to be effective, it needs to not only be fair; but it also must be perceived as being fair. These older, stringent punishments, that are out of line with sentences imposed under today's laws, erode people’ s confidence in our criminal justice system."
It is important that our Justice Department continue to evolve and adopt new policies to effectively deal with crime in today's society. By adopting smarter sentencing guidelines and allowing Judges and Prosecutors to use their discretion instead of following mandatory minimum guidelines, we are taking a step in the right direction.