In announcing yesterday that it planned to do away with "draconian" mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug offenders, the Justice Department is righting an injustice, right? As Eric Holder explained it, "Too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long, and for no truly good law enforcement reason." That may be so, writes Brad Plumer for the Washington Post's Wonkblog, but he does the math and comes up with a second reason for the move: the "serious strain" the prison population is putting on the DOJ's budget.
Plumer writes that the housing and care of our more than 218,000 federal inmates led to a $6.9 billion request for the Bureau of Prisons for fiscal 2013. At the current pace of growth, prisons will eat up 30% of the DOJ's budget by just 2020, per an Urban Institute report. This will suck money away from "other key Justice Department priorities" (think federal investigators), programs that the Urban Institute thinks "do far more for public safety than prisons." And the drug change makes sense, writes Plumer, because the report attributes 32% of federal prison population growth to longer drug-related sentences. But there's a caveat in all this, notes Plumber: 86.1% of all prisoners are state-level, not federal, inmates. "Really large-scale reform would require new policies from state legislatures around the country." Click for his full piece.