08/16/2013 09:25 am ET Updated Oct 16, 2013

Smart on Crime: Attorney General Holder's Top Priority Is New Reforms to Decrease U.S. Prison Population

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder recently declared that our current levels of incarceration at all levels of government has become both "ineffective and unsustainable." So he is taking steps to tackle our over-1.5 million prison population.

He won't get an argument with that. But, just how to change it and where to cut costs is what our lawmakers have not been able to agree on.

Well, it looks like Holder plans on starting with prisoners who are incarcerated for drug-related offenses. These prisoners account for about half of our 200,000 federal prisoners. Holder explains that many of these prisoners are facing too long of a sentence and sometimes for no good law enforcement reason.

With President Nixon's "war on drugs" in 1971 came big developments in drug courts and drug treatments programs. But, in spite of this, the U.S. prison population has 25 percent of the world's prisoners although we represent only 5 percent of the world's population. So, what's the problem then? Well, many would point to mandatory sentencing. About 60 percent of our federal prisoners are serving time under mandatory sentencing provisions. An example: a conviction of selling 5 kilograms of cocaine means a mandatory 10-year minimum sentence.

Arizona criminal defense attorney Dwane Cates thinks, "We need to get rid of the mandatory sentencing system, even if the policy changes Federal law; states handle the vast majority of drug cases."

Other proposals being introduced review of sentence disparities (black male offenders receive on average 20 percent longer sentences than whites committing the same crimes), compassionate early release of elderly inmates and other early parole changes, improving counseling on reentry to curb repeat offenses and pursue alternatives to incarceration for low-level non-violent crimes (about 45 percent of the 25,000 drug offenders in prison are street-level dealers and couriers) -- these will all help.

But, what do we do with the money we will be saving and how do we address some of the underlying problems that lead to criminal activity? As part of this new approach, Holder says many states are already moving in the right direction -- by redirecting money away from constructing new prisons toward programs and services to treat and supervise repeat offenders.

Holder explains that this vicious cycle of poverty, criminal activity and incarceration is a trap that too many of our Americans fall into which weakens our communities. Some features of our justice system need to be modified to help alleviate the problem, not exacerbate it. The attorney general wants to make sure that our prisons are used to "punish, deter and rehabilitate -- not merely to convict, warehouse and forget."

So, why all of these changes now? National politics of the issue has shifted. It is politically wise for our lawmakers to introduce bills to decrease incarceration. Most would agree that while remaining tough on crime is necessary, we must find more effective and more efficient ways to accomplish this goal. As Holder declared "we cannot simply prosecute or incarcerate our way to becoming safer." He is calling his new approach the "Smart on Crime" initiative.