The prison system in our country certainly costs taxpayers quite a lot of money, but we have gotten to the point where it has become more expensive to send a felon to jail than to send a student to an Ivy League university. Of course, keeping dangerous individuals off the streets is certainly important for a civilized nation, but we've come to the point where over 330,000 people in jail are there for drug-related or nonviolent charges. Combine that number with how much it takes to support each convict for a year and suddenly the cost for taxpayers just on these types of prisoners alone starts to add up well into the billions range. Do we need to finally reform the justice system to save us money?
Attorney general Eric Holder certainly thinks so, giving us one of the strongest pieces of logic to come out of government in the past several months: "I think there are too many people in jail for too long, and for not necessarily good reasons." Many of the options that could help decrease costs on the Justice Department are in the power of Holder himself, including two big decisions: telling attorneys not to prosecute certain types of low-level crimes and sending drug users to treatment facilities rather than prisons. Considering that community-based treatment centers often cost around $20,000 less than incarceration, these actions would be extremely cost-effective to a government that's already swamped in massive debt.
Touching upon the legality of many drugs might be better in a different story, but we've already seen how powerful the war on drugs has been in ruining lives across the country. Instead of worrying on which substances should be legal and which shouldn't at the moment, we should focus more on limiting these punishments and giving more discretion to judges in order to override many pointless mandatory minimum enforcements.
This issue isn't even a matter of left vs. right anymore. Just in the past several weeks, bipartisan support has come from both sides to work on the topic of prison reform so that concerns such as overcrowding in jails and incarceration eating up a quarter of the Justice Department's budget can be avoided much more easily. The two main bills under consideration at the moment are the Smarter Sentencing Act of 2013 from Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin and Utah Republican Mike Lee, and the Justice Safety Valve Act from Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy and Kentucky Republican Rand Paul.
Both pieces of legislation have the common goal of giving more power to judges in order to impose lower sentences for petty and nonviolent charges, also lowering mandatory minimums. From pure speculation, there isn't a clear front-runner in terms of preferred legislation, but Leahy and Paul's bill discusses lower sentences on crimes that aren't solely drug related, giving it a minuscule edge.
The choice to implement these acts seems remarkably obvious to many politicians, as it should. Grover Norquist, a prominent conservative who is part of a popular coalition called Right on Crime, has bluntly stated that "It's easier to say, 'Let's spend a few dollars a day managing you at your home where you can spend time with your family, where you can work, instead of hundreds of dollars a day, keeping you in a cell.'"
Critics of these reform systems have argued that keeping prisoners on longer terms has helped lower the crime rate in our country, but as Ohio State law professor Douglas Berman has rebutted, "Are we using the prison system too broadly, too widely? Are we getting a poor return on our investment with criminal justice dollars when we're constantly growing the federal prison population and especially in a time of sequester that comes with cuts to prosecutors, cuts to police forces, cuts to defender services?"
Luckily, the Justice Department has had lawyers working on proposals regarding prison reform for months, and Holder might unveil them as early as next week in a speech to the American Bar Association in San Francisco. To cap it off, Jonathan Wroblewski, the Director of the Office of Policy and Legislation, wrote in a letter earlier this year that "Imprisonment is a power that should be exercised sparingly and only as necessary."