Economics or Morals: What's Behind the DOJ's New Prison Policies?

Reena Flores

When U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder outlined a new plan to decrease America's prison population at Monday's annual American Bar Association meeting in San Francisco, the announcement was met with thunderous applause. Holder said such reforms are necessary because of the impossible-to-calculate "human and moral costs" of the current judicial system, even calling it "draconian."

But, with federal prisons operating at nearly 40 percent above capacity, he also made the case it was fiscally "pragmatic."

Holder's plan has several key components:

1. Low-level drug offenders (with no ties to large organizations, cartels, or gangs) will no longer be charged with offenses that include mandatory minimum sentences.

2. The Justice Department has updated its framework for evaluating compassionate release for inmates facing compelling circumstances—including old age.

3. DOJ will also expand the use of "diversion" programs such as drug treatment and community service that could be used instead of incarceration.

These changes to Justice Department protocol are significant and will affect a large number of the prison population. According to the nonprofit group the Sentencing Project, there are approximately 25,000 drug convictions in federal court each year, with 45 percent of these for low-level offenses.

The driving forces behind these new initiatives are probably a convergence of the fiscal reality with the Obama administration's ethical considerations.

Holder acknowledged the moral imbalances of a judicial system that particularly disenfranchises people of color. He brought up a recent report by the U.S. Sentencing Commission, which found that a racial gap has been widening in prison sentencing: Sentences for black men were nearly 20 percent longer than those of white men who had committed similar crimes. Holder said this statistic is not "just unacceptable, it is shameful. It is unworthy of our country, it is unworthy of our great legal traditions."

But what's perhaps more telling is Holder's statement that the United States is "coldly efficient in our incarceration efforts." He explained that while the U.S. population has increased by about 30 percent since 1980, the federal prison population has grown by almost 800 percent.

In fact, a different sort of cold efficiency may be the driving force behind the latest reform attempts.

In an era of sequestration scares and budget cuts, the Justice Department has not escaped unscathed. Earlier this year, when the sequester was still a looming threat in the distance, the department was faced with the possibility of $1.6 billion in cuts.

A quick look at the DOJ's fiscal 2013 overview is also revealing: Its budget called for "over $1 billion in efficiencies, offsets, redirections of grant program funding and rescissions." The Department of Prisons was primed as the agency to suffer the second highest of these cuts, after the FBI, with a nearly $133 million reduction.

Could the expansion of compassionate-release guidelines be more than an attempt to pass on the medical bills accrued by elderly inmates? According to an American Civil Liberties Union report released last year, approximately 13.5 percent of federal prisoners are age 50 or older.

But Holder's economic argument was just as likely to resonate with libertarian-leaning Republicans such as Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky. The attorney general pointed to legislation "aimed at giving judges more discretion in applying mandatory minimums to certain drug offenders," which he said "will ultimately save our country billions of dollars." Paul said in a statement released after Holder's speech:

"I am encouraged that the President and Attorney General agree with me that mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent offenders promote injustice and do not serve public safety."

There is an increasingly strong case for Paul's perspective. According to The New York Times, numerous states have tested programs to reduce their prisons' nonviolent drug offender populations. Some, including those with more-conservative governments like Texas and Arkansas, have acknowledged that driving down costs has been a major motivating factor. In his speech, Holder cited Kentucky's latest attempts to lower recidivism, resulting in a prison population reduced by more than 3,000 over the next 10 years and saving more than $400 million.

He concluded:

"We must never stop being tough on crime, but we must also be smart and efficient when battling crime and the conditions and the individual choices that breed it. Ultimately, this is about a lot more than fairness ... it makes plain economic sense."

Liberal critics of the Obama administration are touting this as a step in the right direction. In a blog post by the director of their Washington legislative office, the ACLU wrote that "this is a big deal." They noted:

"This is the first major address from the Obama administration calling for action to end the mass incarceration crisis and reduce the racial disparities that plague our criminal justice system."

It's a win-win for the Justice Department and, by extension, President Obama. Prison-reform motivation comes from several things. Morals? Sure. Money-saving? Definitely.