- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The number of federal prisoners has declined by 4,800 since September, the first time the inmate population has fallen since 1980, Attorney General Eric Holder announced Tuesday.

“This is nothing less than historic,” Mr. Holder said at a conference on reducing the nation’s prison population. “Clearly, criminal justice reform is an idea whose time has come … We are bringing about a paradigm shift, and witnessing a historic sea change, in the way our nation approaches these issues.”

The downward trend is expected to continue, he said. The federal government now has 214,506 prisoners, but that figure is projected to decline by 2,200 inmates in fiscal 2015. In fiscal 2016, the population is expected to fall by another 10,000 inmates — the equivalent of six federal prisons.

“The United States will never be able to prosecute or incarcerate its way to becoming a safer nation,” Mr. Holder said, delivering the keynote address at a conference about reducing prison populations at the Brennan Center for Justice, part of New York University School of Law.

Earlier Tuesday, the center released a report calling for judicial reforms that would lessen the focus on incarceration and would dedicate more effort to reducing violent crime.

“Prosecutors increasingly agree that they can advance public safety and justice without excessively relying on incarceration,” said Inimai Chettiar, director of the Justice Program at the Brennan Center.

The report recommends judicial offices focus on achieving clear guidelines, such as tracking actions that lead to changes in the crime rate, reducing prison populations, and cut recidivism rates to ensure that inmates don’t commit crimes after they’re released.

“[Prosecutors] can lead the way to advance thoughtful, sensible approaches that have a real impact on violence and crime, while also reducing unnecessary prosecution and incarceration,” former Attorney General Janet Reno wrote in the report’s foreword. “This report provides a blueprint for federal prosecutors to establish a new set of priorities to better reduce crime and reduce incarceration, while modernizing criminal justice.”

The United States has often been criticized for having the highest incarceration rate in the world. Judicial reform advocates have often argued it is from unbalanced sentencing laws that have cracked down on minor drug offenses. Some estimates place the U.S. at having nearly 25 percent of the world’s prison population.

Mr. Holder said that reducing the prison population while reducing crime has been a key goal of the Obama administration.

Last August, he announced “compassionate release and reduction” programs that would reduce the mandatory minimum sentences for many non-violent defendants arrested on drug charges. The Justice Department also has encouraged reviews of some existing cases to see if the sentences for minor offenses have been too harsh.

“We know that over-incarceration crushes opportunity,” Mr. Holder said. “We know it prevents people, and entire communities, from getting on the right track. And we’ve seen that — as more and more government leaders have gradually come to recognize — at a fundamental level, it challenges our commitment to the cause of justice.”

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