We have known for some time that the United States incarcerates more people than any other industrialized nation on the planet. The federal prison system, which has grown approximately 700% since 1980, currently holds about 216,000 inmates. Additionally, states, counties and municipalities each have their own prison systems. It is estimated that approximately 25% of the world’s convicts are held in US prisons.
The sheer number of incarcerated inmates is only one issue. In prison, inmate numbers translate into dollars quickly. The current annual maintenance cost of the federal prison system alone is approximately $74 Billion. State and local governments also have substantial budgets for their own prison systems and facilities. For example, a recent study estimated that the New York City prison system spends approximately $168,000 per inmate each year. This sum is considerably larger than the annual income of many American households. Further, recidivism rates suggest strongly that a significant amount of these resources are wasted. Some of the most recent data available show that approximately 70% of released inmates are re-arrested within three years of release. Thus, in many cases, incarceration briefly removes someone from society, but does not necessarily address the long-term problems and issues that caused them to engage in criminal conduct. Finally, most US offenders are incarcerated for narcotics-related offenses.
Against this backdrop, Attorney General Eric Holder is backing a broad-based effort to reduce or eliminate mandatory minimum federal prison sentences for many drug offenders. Holder’s argument is simple. He wants to reduce federal prison spending and re-focus prison resources on more violent offenders. His critics respond by saying, among other things, that mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug offenders aid in the enforcement of our narcotics laws by pressuring “smaller” defendants to cooperate with police and prosecutors in their efforts to move against larger suspects and targets. Continue reading