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Better late than never: Eric Holder gets “smart on crime”

Holder’s recent suggestion of changes to the criminal justice system shows that the government is seeing the light

Make no bones about it, I haven’t been a fan of Attorney General Holder since he took office but I think this time he has it right. Holder announced recently the Justice Department would be implementing an initiative to keep low level criminals from being sucked up into the system and doomed to fail.

The Justice Department’s “Smart on Crime” initiative will focus five key provisions:
- Prioritizing prosecutions to focus on the most serious cases

- Reforming sentencing to eliminate unfair disparities and reduce overcrowded prisons.

- Pursuing alternatives to incarceration and low-level, non-violent crimes.

- Improving reentry to curb repeat offenses and re-victimization.

- Surging resources to violence prevention and protecting the most vulnerable populations.

It has been long recognized that minimum mandatory sentences and policies that limit a judge’s discretion negatively impact the incarceration rates. We have become the “incarceration nation”, making up 5 % of the worlds’ population but 25 % of the incarcerated. The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world – higher than Russia or South Africa, yet we claim to be one of the most civilized nations. States realized years ago that continued incarceration isn’t the answer – now the federal government is seeing the light.

Incarceration is expensive. It is estimated that the Justice Department spent over $6.6 billion in 2012 on housing prisoners – almost half of whom were convicted of non-violent drug offenses. In a time when our national debt is higher than it’s ever been, this just doesn’t make sense.

According to the United State Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), almost 2.3 million adults were incarcerated in U.S. federal and state prisons, and county jails at year-end 2011. Additionally, 4,814,200 adults at year-end 2011 were on some form of correctional supervision. I often feel like we have created the “field of dreams”, if you build them, we will fill them.

I have been in and around jails and prisons since the early eighties. I see offenders in terms of thirds: a third shouldn’t be there (low level non-violent offenders), a third can be helped with rehabilitative programs (which are pretty much non-existent) and a third should probably never get out. There’s no science to this, just my personal observations.

Finally, Holder and the Obama administration recognize that many of the offenders who are caught in the wide criminal justice net would benefit from treatment, not just incarceration. The feds should look at split sentencing – offering offenders incentive for treatment and the ability to be released for good, productive behavior. Gain time should be awarded for inmates who maintain a treatment plan and remain disciplinary free. This would also allow administrators that “carrot” they need to keep inmates in line.

The one piece Holder fails to mention however, is the declining American culture. We need to teach parents how to parent, provide incentives to work and not become a perpetual welfare state; we need to teach morality in schools and increase the importance of a good, solid education. As we lead the world in incarceration, we are falling back in educational scores; increasing the number of folks’ dependant on government programs, and reward free enterprise.

So, while I think the Attorney General is on the right track, his proposal is shallow. We must take a holistic approach if we want to win America back from the scourge of society.

“We must never stop being tough on crime,” said Holder. “But we must also be smarter on crime.” Mr. Holder – we need to be smarter about a lot of things!

Laura E. Bedard began her work in corrections as a jail administrator in 1984. During her tenure as administrative faculty for the College of Criminology at Florida State University, she ran a study-abroad program in the Czech Republic lecturing on crime topics in an emerging democracy. In 2005, she became the first female Deputy Secretary of the Florida Department of Corrections. There she was responsible for 27,000 state employees and over 200,000 offenders in the third largest correctional system in the country. Dr. Bedard has published and lectured on a number of corrections-related topics including women in prison, mental health issues and correctional leadership. Dr. Bedard is currently serving as the Chief of Corrections for the Seminole County Sheriff’s Office in Sanford, Florida.