Yesterday, Attorney General Eric Holder offered the Obama administration's mostforceful critique to date of U.S. mass incarceration policies, at a meeting of the hemisphere's security ministers in Medellín, Colombia. He also emphasized the Obama administration's efforts to scale back mandatory minimum sentencing policies.
"The path we are currently on is far from sustainable," said Holder. "As we speak, roughly one out of every 100 American adults is behind bars. Although the United States comprises just five percent of the world's population, we incarcerate almost a quarter of the world's prisoners. While few would dispute the fact that incarceration has a role to play in any comprehensive public safety strategy, it's become evident that such widespread incarceration is both inadvisable and unsustainable. It requires that we routinely spend billions of dollars on prison construction -- and tens of billions more, on an annual basis, to house those who are convicted of crimes. It carries both human and moral costs that are too much to bear. And it results in far too many Americans serving too much time in too many prisons -- and beyond the point of serving any good law enforcement reason."
Holder also suggested that other countries should have greater flexibility in drug control policies.
"We must cooperate if we are to protect our respective citizens from the criminal enterprises that threaten our national and international interests," said Holder. "And we must acknowledge that none among us can fight this battle on our own, or by implementing a 'one-size-fits all' approach."
"I have to admit it's a strange feeling, at once wonderful and wary, when the attorney general of the United States tells an audience of security ministers -- at a conference in a foreign country -- that there's something fundamentally wrong with incarcerating so many people in his own country," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. "The Obama administration's rhetorical shift can be criticized as too little and too late but its historic significance cannot be denied. Let's just hope that this new rhetoric truly translates into new policies."
Holder delivered his address at the Fourth Meeting of Ministers Responsible for Public Security in the Americas (MISPA IV), a biannual conference sponsored by the Organization of American States (OAS), designed to promote policy coordination on the issue.
Tony Newman is the director of media relations at the Drug Policy Alliance (www.drugpolicy.org)