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A few weeks ago Congress held hearings to confirm Loretta Lynch as the next Attorney General of the United States. If confirmed, she will take the place of Eric Holder, who leaves behind a legacy favorable to reforms in law enforcement, prison sentences, immigration, and against discrimination. Civil rights proponents celebrate his many denunciations of Voter ID laws and harsh immigration laws.
I think one of the most important programs Holder pioneered as Attorney General was his Smart on Crime initiative, which aims to encourage sentencing proportionate to the crime committed, to prevent recidivism, to encourage successful reentry of former inmates to larger society, and to reduce the prison population of the United States and with it the financial burden to taxpayers (which amounted to $80 billion in 2010 alone).
When I worked at the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless in the early 2000s, I met many men and women living in shelters, transitional housing and on the streets who had criminal records—often a result of being arrested and serving prison time for a nonviolent offense. I often heard an adage repeated by them, “Prison is just the down payment--you serve the real time after you’re released.”
The United States has the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world, and most of the people who serve time receive short sentences and are rarely provided with skills, education or training to prevent them returning to prison at a later date. Many people are not locked up for violent crimes which endanger society, but for technical issues like violating the terms of their parole or probation. This problem is particularly true for juvenile offenders, many of whom are locked up for charges like truancy or running away. Once a juvenile has served time in jail, the likelihood he or she will graduate high school drops significantly, and the likelihood of serving time as an adult increases.
Studies have shown that reentry programs designed to prepare inmates for honest employment and a law abiding life outside of prison are often the key to preventing recidivism. Equally important, however, is to reform laws so that nonviolent offenders spend as little time in jail or prison as possible—accountability does not necessarily mean maximum confinement. A study showed that as programs in New York and New Jersey significantly reduced prison populations, crime rates for those states actually dropped at a higher rate than the national crime rate during the same period.
Also troubling is the severe racial disparity among the prison population—in the United States, one in three black men will serve time in prison, as well as one in six Latino men. Incarceration rates for Caucasian men are far lower. During Holder’s term as Attorney General, some of the discriminatory sentencing laws which have created this problem have been addressed, though much of the problem remains in the disparate treatment of offenders of different races by the police and court systems—another issue about which Holder has been outspoken on.
Holder’s Smart on Crime initiative has made reducing prison time for nonviolent offenders and improving reentry programs a priority for law enforcement around the country. These goals are crucial for reducing crime and lowering the prison population in the United States, both of which are important goals in and of themselves but also because of the positive externalities they cause in society as a whole. Reduced crime and fewer people incarcerated create economic benefits, and also help to ease racial tensions and heal the wounds which crime inflicts upon communities.
Holder’s actions as Attorney General to reform criminal justice practices are among those that his successor should aspire to replicate and expand. The rule of law means that those who do wrong are held accountable, but justice can be undermined by shortsighted criminal justice policies that sacrifice long term wellbeing for misguided notions of short term retribution.