Monday, February 23, 2015

GUEST COLUMN: Federal sentencing reforms make us smarter on crime

By Barry Grissom
U.S. Attorney for the District of Kansas

KANSAS CITY, KAN. ---- Criminal justice reform is an idea whose time has finally come. Eighteen months after launching the Smart on Crime initiative, we can report that overall federal drug trafficking cases dropped by 6 percent in FY 2014.

There was a time when well-intentioned proponents of the “get tough” formula for fighting drugs would have been alarmed by this decline. But that was before U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and others began leading a drive to re-evaluate our criminal justice system.

Their goal is to develop a fairer criminal justice system that deters serious criminal conduct, holds people accountable for crimes and utilizes incarceration more wisely. We want to punish, deter and rehabilitate – not merely confine and forget.

For the federal prosecutors in our office, the Smart on Crime initiative has meant putting sensible limits on when we seek stiffer sentences in drug cases. We are seeking fewer mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenders.

That means we reserve stricter sentences for more serious offenders rather than trying to impose them in every case. After several years in a row that saw federal prosecutors pursue mandatory sentences in roughly two-thirds of drug cases, the rate in 2014 dropped to one-in-two.

Why did we need to make this change? America has an overreliance on incarceration. With only 5 percent of the world’s population, we produce 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. Federal prison population has grown almost 800 percent since 1980, while this nation’s population grew by only a third.

As a result, roughly a third of the Justice Department’s budget goes to pay for operating prisons. Aside from the merely monetary costs, the human and moral toll of unrestrained incarceration is difficult to calculate.

We still have a lot of work to do. Our prisons remain overcrowded. Across the country, far too many people are trapped in cycles of poverty, criminality and incarceration. Law enforcement needs to work harder to build trust in the communities we are sworn to serve and protect.

From critical improvements to the juvenile justice system, to a range of other criminal justice reforms, we must continue to advance promising bipartisan legislation to make our communities safer, treat individuals more justly and allow more efficient use of law enforcement resources.

We are working to strengthen re-entry programs aimed at reducing recidivism and advancing a host of targeted improvements such as drug courts. In this way, we are laying a strong foundation for a new era of American justice.

Barry Grissom is the United States Attorney for the District of Kansas.