Holder proposes changes in criminal justice system
by PETE YOST
WASHINGTON (AP) — Attorney General Eric Holder is calling for major changes to the nation's criminal justice system that would scale back the use of harsh prison sentences for certain drug-related crimes, divert people convicted of low-level offenses to drug treatment and community service programs and expand a prison program to allow for release of some elderly, non-violent offenders.
In remarks prepared for delivery Monday to the American Bar Association in San Francisco, Holder said he is mandating a change to Justice Department policy so that low-level, non-violent drug offenders with no ties to large-scale organizations, gangs or cartels won't be charged with offenses that impose mandatory minimum sentences.
Mandatory minimum prison sentences — a product of the government's war on drugs in the 1980s — limit the discretion of judges to impose shorter prison sentences.
Under the altered policy, the attorney general said defendants will instead be charged with offenses for which accompanying sentences "are better suited to their individual conduct, rather than excessive prison terms more appropriate for violent criminals or drug kingpins."
Federal prisons are operating at nearly 40 percent above capacity and hold more than 219,000 inmates — with almost half of them serving time for drug-related crimes and many of them with substance use disorders. In addition, 9 million to 10 million prisoners go through local jails each year. Holder praised state and local law enforcement officials for already instituting some of the types of changes Holder says must be made at the federal level.
Aggressive enforcement of federal criminal laws is necessary, but "we cannot simply prosecute or incarcerate our way to becoming a safer nation," Holder said. "Today, a vicious cycle of poverty, criminality and incarceration traps too many Americans and weakens too many communities. However, many aspects of our criminal justice system may actually exacerbate this problem, rather than alleviate it."
"We need to ensure that incarceration is used to punish, deter and rehabilitate — not merely to convict, warehouse and forget," said the attorney general.
Holder said mandatory minimum sentences "breed disrespect for the system. When applied indiscriminately, they do not serve public safety. They have had a disabling effect on communities. And they are ultimately counterproductive."
Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Rand Paul, R-Ky., have introduced legislation aimed at giving federal judges more discretion in applying mandatory minimums to certain drug offenders.
Holder said new approaches — which he is calling the "Smart On Crime" initiative — are the result of a Justice Department review he launched early this year.
The attorney general said some issues are best handled at the state or local level and said he has directed federal prosecutors across the country to develop locally tailored guidelines for determining when federal charges should be filed, and when they should not.
"By targeting the most serious offenses, prosecuting the most dangerous criminals, directing assistance to crime 'hot spots,' and pursuing new ways to promote public safety, deterrence, efficiency and fairness — we can become both smarter and tougher on crime," Holder said.
The attorney general said 17 states have directed money away from prison construction and toward programs and services such as treatment and supervision that are designed to reduce the problem of repeat offenders.
In Kentucky, legislation has reserved prison beds for the most serious offenders and refocused resources on community supervision. The state, Holder said, is projected to reduce its prison population by more than 3,000 over the next 10 years, saving more than $400 million.
He also cited investments in drug treatment in Texas for non-violent offenders and changes to parole policies which he said brought about a reduction in the prison population of more than 5,000 inmates last year. He said similar efforts helped Arkansas reduce its prison population by more than 1,400. He also pointed to Georgia, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Hawaii as states that have improved public safety while preserving limited resources.
Holder also said the department is expanding a policy for considering compassionate release for inmates facing extraordinary or compelling circumstances, and who pose no threat to the public. He said the expansion will include elderly inmates who did not commit violent crimes and who have served significant portions of their sentences.
Blend prison alternatives, public safety
Bob Houston, who heads the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services, knows the need for prison alternatives better than most.
His inmate population of nearly 4,800 sits above a trigger for federal lawsuits and climbs by about 11 people a month. He's got about 200 inmates he could place in settings that help them better transition back into the state's work force and into life outside prison, but he lacks the right kind of space.
He's heard state senators say the Legislature has neither the will nor the money to build a new, $130 million-to-$150 million prison, with ongoing annual costs of $30 million-plus. And he's engaged in promising talk of prison and sentencing reform.
But he works at the back end of the criminal justice system, with no control over whom he receives or for how long. His department needs the help of the Legislature, the governor and judges to free up space, despite years of state focus on parole.
Fortunately, the people who manage the front end of the justice system appear ready to give this issue the attention it deserves. State Sen. Brad Ashford of Omaha, chairman of the Legislature's Judiciary Committee, told The World-Herald that he plans to draft a major proposal on prison and sentencing reform for the next legislative session.
This effort deserves support, so long as it continues to correctly emphasize public safety at a reasonable cost to taxpayers. Those are the principles that should guide any changes. While saving money is good, Nebraska needs to keep violent criminals off the streets.
The state's recent uptick in inmates could be eased if each of Nebraska's 56 district judges sentenced two fewer nonviolent criminals a year to prison. That modest figure should offer hope that the crowding problem is one that can be overcome.
Responsibly addressing prison crowding and costs requires embrace of sensible sentencing flexibility, prison alternatives and getting criminals the help they need so that they only visit prison once.
It requires prioritizing big data on the prison population to inform the debate — digging deeper into who is incarcerated and for what, and drilling down into why people reoffend and what might keep them from doing so.
It requires more statutory emphasis on drug courts and problem-solving courts for nonviolent offenders, better use of local day reporting centers for probationers and parolees and better access to mandatory substance abuse and mental health treatment for those who can safely and more cost-effectively be held accountable closer to home.
State officials know there are answers better than building a new Tecumseh. Tecumseh is home to the last prison Nebraska built in 2001 for $74 million. It has ongoing annual costs of more than $35 million.
Smart prison alternatives are cheaper upfront and over the long term, and they can be nearly as safe. That's why they are favored by conservatives and liberals alike, one area of broad, bipartisan agreement. Imprisoning someone costs taxpayers nearly $30,000 a year. Putting someone on parole costs about $3,500, and putting an offender on probation costs about $500.
But embracing prison alternatives requires political courage in the face of inevitable disappointments when an inmate falls short or absconds. To succeed, prison alternatives require politicians, policy-makers and administrators to let the public know the facts.
Facts like those that show mandatory-minimum sentences are contributing to this latest prison population bump but aren't keeping people behind bars any longer, according to Ashford. (Parolees are at record numbers, but new inmates are wiping out any progress in easing crowding, prison officials say.)
Facts show that 14 percent of the state's prison population is behind bars primarily for drug-related offenses. And another 17 percent are in prison primarily for nonviolent property crimes.
Facts also show that Nebraska's drug court participants go back to prison about half as often as those who do not participate.
And facts show state corrections spending has nearly tripled since 1996, to roughly $180 million a year, and will continue to grow if nothing changes.
Prison alternatives are about saving money by investing instead in the treatment centers, drug courts, problem-solving courts, probation and parole officers needed to hold nonviolent criminals accountable.
That's the population where the state could save millions and, in the process, reroute some offenders into productive, taxpaying lives.
It's about giving people who might succeed a chance to do so with their support networks in tow, about keeping them from becoming hardened criminals who would cost more.
It's about providing judges reasonable flexibility so they can do more at the front end.
Already, the state has begun important work toward trimming prison populations with a juvenile justice overhaul. Ashford says the next focus is the 1,200 offenders in prison under the age of 26.
But before it can send fewer people to prison, Nebraska must, as it is doing for juvenile justice, invest in building up capacity of social workers, mental health providers, substance abuse treatment providers, reporting centers and probation officers.
All of this is cheaper than a new prison, and prisons are meant for the violent, the vile and the unrepentant — not those who still can change their ways.
NSA debate: Will reforms ease public concern or compromise safety?
by Lindsey Boerma
CBS News) Top-secret National Security Agency programs that cull metadata from U.S. citizens to keep tabs on potential terrorist threats in no way violate Americans' privacy, two high-ranking members of the House Intelligence Committee and one former intelligence official agreed Sunday on "Face the Nation." But with details of the programs circulating internationally thanks to Edward Snowden, they all added, reforms may be necessary, if only to placate public perception.
President Obama on Friday announced a series of steps to make NSA programs more transparent, explaining not only how the programs operate but also releasing the Justice Department's legal rationale for the programs. The administration also plans to back various reforms to the programs to strengthen oversight.
"Anyone working in the intelligence arena, including the president, understands this program helps protect us," said Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger, D-Md., the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. "It really might have protected us from the 9/11 attack, because we didn't know that one of the terrorists was in San Diego in the United States. And if we would have known, it might have helped."
Still, Ruppersberger said, the fallout from the programs' revelation suggests some soothing of public opinion might be required: "We in politics have to deal with perception, not just reality," he said. "And we need to do better in educating our public so they are not fearful that we, the government, are violating their privacy - that's very important."
But not just members of the public, Ruppersberger went on: He and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., "feel very strongly that we need to educate our members."
Earlier on the program, Gen. Michael Hayden, former CIA and NSA director, seemed to agree, saying that even Mr. Obama "pointed out when he was Sen. Obama, and wasn't quite fully knowledgeable about these programs, he was opposed to them. And only when becoming President Obama and saw what was going on, [he] became a very forceful advocate for them."
The House's arguably harried vote last month to end the NSA's bulk collection of U.S. phone records "looked like mob action," Hayden said of the narrowly failed bill. "People acting out of emotion with a false sense of urgency and with a great deal of misinformation." Responding to some critics in Congress who've said briefings on the NSA programs have been inadequate, Hayden argued: "This is just a complicated subject, alright?"
He said during huddles with then-President Bush about terrorist surveillance programs, he predicted the onslaught of doubts.
"My guidance to my people at Fort Meade was, 'I want to be full Monty here,'" he said. "I don't want anyone to be able to say when this becomes public - and we knew it would be - 'Well, I got some sort of briefing.' I wanted them to know exactly what we were doing and the scale on which we were working. And by the way, every member of Congress was invited to read a letter in '09 and in 2011 that specifically said, 'We are gathering the metadata on all calls in the United States.'"
Going forward will be hard, Hayden continued, because some steps the president could take to make the public more comfortable with NSA activity "will actually make Americans less safe."
"Let me tell you, looking through your windscreen when you lay this on, it just looks [like] more thorough oversight, OK?" he said. "When you're looking in your rearview mirror after the next successful attack, this runs the danger of looking like bureaucratic layering. And, so, you need to be careful about how many processes you put in there."
Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., another member of the House Intelligence Committee, argued on the show that the president's primary fault has been staying "silent for the past two months."
"He allowed the Edward Snowdens and others in the world to dominate the media, and now we have people thinking the NSA is spying on people, is listening to our phone calls," he said. "The president of the United States as commander-in-chief had the obligation to be aggressively and effectively defending his program, and he really didn't do it."
Lauding NSA employees as "patriots," "what has annoyed me the most over the last several months is people casually using words like 'spying,' 'snooping,'" King said. "There is too much loose talk here ... every time I hear 'snooping,' and 'spying,' it just drives me crazy."