expressed when he unveiled his "Smart on Crime" initiative last August. Speaking at a conference of public security officials in Medellin, Colombia, Holder reflected on America's dubious achievements in the field of locking people in cages:Yesterday Attorney General Eric Holder reiterated the concerns about mass incarceration that he
The path we are currently on is far from sustainable. 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.
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. 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.
I expressed similar sentiments in a column last summer.
Today the Brennan Center for Justice released a report that suggests one way of curbing the over-incarceration that Holder deplores: by reforming the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant Program, the biggest source of federal aid to local law enforcement agencies, so that it does not encourage cops to measure their success by arrests:
Current measures inadvertently incentivize unwise policy choices. Federal officials ask states to report the number of arrests, but not whether the crime rate dropped. They measure the amount of cocaine seized, but not whether arrestees were screened for drug addiction. They tally the number of cases prosecuted, but not whether prosecutors reduced the number of petty crime offenders sent to prison. In short, today's JAG performance measures fail to show whether the programs it funds have achieved "success:" improving public safety without needless social costs. These measures send a signal to states and localities that the federal government desires more arrests, more cocaine busts, and more prosecutions at the expense of other more effective activities.
The report says the Obama administration could make meaningful changes without new legislation by revising the criteria for assessing grant recipents' performance. It does not mention that Barack Obama, who as a presidential candidate worried about the size of our prison system and the racially disproportionate impact of the war on drugs, nevertheless has been a big booster of the Byrne grant program, which has fueled the incarceration of nonviolent drug offenders and funded the regional task forces behind racially tinged law enforcement scandals in places such as Tulia, Texas.