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New drug sentencing prompts ERLC concern

WASHINGTON (BP) — U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder’s new order to prevent strict, mandatory prison terms for some low-level drug offenders may result in other sentencing problems, according to a Southern Baptist public policy expert.

Holder announced Monday (Aug. 12) a change in the Justice Department’s policies that would mean charges that “impose draconian” mandatory minimum sentences would no longer be brought against some nonviolent drug offenders without connections to gangs or drug cartels.

The revision will produce charges that result in sentences that are more appropriate for the conduct of such low-level offenders rather than that of “violent criminals or drug kingpins,” Holder said.

That approach, however, produced in him “deep reservations” about the order’s eventual implementation, said Barrett Duke of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

“Mandatory minimum sentencing was partly introduced to remove some of the subjective element in sentencing practices,” said Duke, the ERLC’s vice president for public policy. “I am concerned [Holder’s] actions will move us to a greater disparity in sentencing than currently exists as different offices weigh similar offenses differently.”

An examination of current sentencing requirements to “balance the rule of law and rehabilitation for some low-level, first-time offenders” is proper, but legislators — not the executive branch — should be conducting it, Duke said.

“Those convicted of possessing small amounts of some illicit drugs for personal use are good candidates for such a review,” Duke told Baptist Press. “Drug abuse in our nation is a serious problem, destroying lives, families and entire communities. We must take this seriously. However, our legislators should assess the effectiveness of our current system at helping recreational users to end their use of drugs rather than simply trying to lock up as many of them as possible.”

Holder’s new order — disclosed at the annual meeting of the American Bar Association’s House of Delegates in San Francisco — came as part of a speech addressing America’s overcrowded prison system.

“[T]oo many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long and for no truly good law enforcement reason,” Holder said. “[I]t is well past time to implement common sense changes that will foster safer communities from coast to coast.”

The statistics demonstrating the problem, Holder said, include:

— The number of inmates in federal prisons has increased by 800 percent since 1980, while the U.S. population has risen by about a third.

— Nearly 220,000 prisoners are in federal facilities, and almost half of them are there for drug-related offenses.

— The federal prison population is 40 percent beyond capacity.

— The cost of incarceration at all federal, state and local government levels was $80 billion in 2010.

— About 40 percent of former federal inmates are arrested again or experience revoked supervision within three years of their release.

In responding to Holder’s order and the problem of overcrowded prisons, Duke said punishment should be only part of the reason for incarceration. Rehabilitation should be another purpose.

“The challenge for the judicial system is to determine the right balance between punishment and rehabilitation,” Duke said. “Reducing sentences too much risks trivializing the law and the loss experienced by victims and society.

“Failing to do everything possible to return truly restored people to society as soon as possible risks devaluing the person created in God’s image,” Duke said. “To imprison nonviolent, non-career offenders with hardened criminals, especially in an already overcrowded situation, can make the rehabilitation process more difficult.”

Duke cited a resolution on prison overcrowding approved by messengers to the 2013 meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention in Houston.

That resolution called for legislation to shrink “high incarceration rates without jeopardizing public safety.” It also supported probation and parole as potentially wise alternatives to lengthy sentences for some nonviolent offenders.

In his speech, Holder also announced directives for U.S. attorneys to develop guidelines for when federal charges, instead of state or local ones, should be filed; to establish broad “anti-violence strategies for badly afflicted areas” in their districts; and to “examine sentencing disparities” by race.

A February report, he said, showed sentences in recent years have been almost 20 percent longer for black male offenders than for white males convicted of comparable crimes.

Justice Fellowship, founded by the late Charles Colson, applauded Holder’s actions.

“It is time for the country to move away from using incarceration as the default punishment for all crimes and be more prudent in the pursuit of justice,” said Craig DeRoche, Justice Fellowship’s president.

“Incarceration should be reserved for the people society fears are a risk to public safety, not the answer for every law that is broken,” DeRoche said. “Instead, we are warehousing petty offenders and turning them into hardened criminals by the time they are released.”
Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).